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Melting Pot Restaurants teams with chef Chris Ponte for two new franchise ideas

Melting Pot Restaurants Inc. will launch not one but two new restaurant concepts next year.

Both are partnerships between Mark and Bob Johnston, the Tampa brothers who control the 142-store fondue restaurant chain, and Clearwater chef Chris Ponte of the popular Cafe Ponte.

It's an expanded role for Ponte, who has been a consultant developing the fare for GrillSmith, the Johnstons' sit-down casual dining chain that opens its sixth Tampa Bay location in Westfield Brandon mall today.

Both new concepts — which are being groomed as Melting Pot's third and fourth brands for future franchising — will be a fast-casual setup similar to Panera Bread that caters to more sophisticated tastes at a value price. Both are designed to get a third of their business from takeout. The average ticket would be $5 to $15, about $10 less than at GrillSmith, which has a full bar and table service.

First up will be Peel, the name for those thin paddles used in pizza ovens. Four years in the making, Peel mates Ponte's lineup of thin-crust, stone-oven Neapolitan pizza with a selection of lighter salads and sandwiches envisioned by Mark Johnston's wife, Arlene, the company's new concept director. Most of the 12-inch pizzas will be priced under $9. The menu also features calzones, panini and eight pastas.

The partners are close to a Carrollwood shopping center deal for the first Peel.

"I'd open a second in a minute if we had a killer site," chief executive officer Mark Johnston said.

The second concept is an as-yet-unnamed burger chain that would take Five Guys up a few notches in an atmosphere more akin to Chipotle Mexican Grill. Diners would have a choice of breads and burger meats: beef, chicken, turkey or veggie. In addition to the standard toppings, Ponte concocted a dozen sauces for spreading on burgers or dipping fries.

A Peel highlight: desserts priced under $3.50, including raspberry creme brulee and baked cookies.

"I baked 100 types of chocolate chip cookies to get it right," said Ponte, who fatigued his taste buds testing burgers for 10 months.

"I don't want to eat another burger for a while."

• • •

If Levi Strauss & Co. created a sensation in 1873 after patenting blue jeans held together by brass rivets, why is the company this year celebrating only the 75th anniversary of Lady Levi's jeans?

Because the San Francisco jeans giant didn't think society was ready to accept women in pants until 1934, the middle of the Depression and 14 years after women won right to vote. Until then women who dared wear Levi's in the workplace or ranching were stuck with men's sizes.

Lady Levi's were first marketed for leisure in a Vogue spread touting them for dude ranch wear.

• • •

Downtown St. Petersburg promoters are inviting all retailers to a series of three seminars filled with tips to make their stores a "destination." A former Hallmark Corp. executive who created strategies for 5,200 card shops, consultant Jon Schallert of Longmont, Colo., beams his webinars to the BayWalk Muvico starting Oct. 20.

Teleconferencing enables questions from the audience at less than a third of his usual $10,000-a-day charge for seminars.

Before questioning why Schallert won't be there in the flesh, be aware the series is free, offers a networking opportunity and includes continental breakfast.

To participate, e-mail destination.retail@stpete.org or call Kimberly Bailey at (727) 893-7784.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Melting Pot Restaurants teams with chef Chris Ponte for two new franchise ideas 10/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 5, 2009 9:09pm]

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