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The Biz: Inside news on bay area newsmakers

Victims of economic stress in casual dining are starting to pile up. Bennigan's. Shells Seafood.

So what's the recipe for survival? For the Tampa-based Melting Pot Restaurants chain and newly named national director of brand development Garry Smyth, it starts with sweet 16 birthday parties. With a few ladies nights out and business meetings sprinkled in.

"The Melting Pot, for most of our customers, is seen as a special dining occasion. The birthday or anniversary," he said. "That insulates us somewhat."

Not that the 138-location restaurant is immune from the dual strain of higher food prices and consumers cutting back on eating out. Overall, sales have been flat, though some locations are growing.

And unlike some other restaurateurs, the Melting Pot is adding to the chain. In December, it opened a third bay area location — in Oldsmar. Its most recent location in Rocky River, Ohio, opened last week. And sister restaurant chain GrillSmith is about to open a store in Clearwater, its fifth location.

Smyth, who turned 44 on Friday, is in charge of all in-house marketing, advertising and public relations programs to support Melting Pot franchisees in 37 states.

An 18-year industry veteran, he's developed and marketed restaurant and nightclub concepts in Chicago, Houston, Detroit and, most recently, Fort Lauderdale. A regular contributor to Nightclub & Bar magazine, Smyth has also co-written a marketing book for the nightclub and bar industry.

The Melting Pot strategy: retrofitting restaurants to include more semiprivate and private group dining. To help with a sales meeting or product launch, all new stores have full video capability typical in a higher-end hotel. Some restaurants have areas with expandable pocket doors that can make room to seat 65 at a time.

"We're primarily known for social occasions," say Smyth. Its fastest-growing niche: sweet 16 parties.

— Jeff Harrington

It's time to party with trimmed-down techie

The man in the yellow Tommy Bahama shirt is back. Fritz Eichelberger hosts one of his "Pure & Shameless" tech socials next month (Oct. 9, 5:30 to 8 p.m.) at International Plaza's Blue Martini. Plenty of IT folks come to schmooze, but this time there's the extra perk of seeing the "new" Fritz: 65 pounds lighter this year. Scroll down to the bottom of his Web site (www.hotspaces.net) to watch the WEDU TV clip "21st Century Physicals." Says Eichelberger: "Trust me, keeping it off is harder than losing it."

Entrepreneur gives tech forum a guiding hand

In 2006, the Times profiled Pam Kauten as a female CEO and company founder running Florida CareerLINK, a career/job-matching business. "I used my own money to start the business," she said back then. "I have noticed there is an issue being a female trying to get money for second stage."

In 2007, the Times reported Kauten selling Florida CareerLINK, which she nurtured to profitability and more than $1-million in sales over 10 years. She said last year that her "tech exec buddies" at the Tampa Bay Technology Forum helped with advice and support. Most recently, Kauten ran the real estate startup FloridaHomeLINK.com, but chose to shut it down due to a lack of outside investment capital.

Now Kauten is joining the TBTF club. Last week, she was named executive director of the group's Emerging Companies Academy to help guide the organization and its mentoring services for early-stage companies.

"As an entrepreneur whose company experienced fantastic highs and painful lows on its path to success, (Pam's) insights will help her to identify the right mentors for academy participants as they navigate key issues such as attracting and keeping great talent, weathering cash-flow challenges, and finding the right investors to fuel growth," said Amy Norman, chief executive and president of TBTF.

The Biz: Inside news on bay area newsmakers 09/28/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 28, 2008 6:46pm]

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