Think of the last time you went to the Melting Pot. It was probably for a birthday, an anniversary or a big night out. Depending on the time of year, you may have seen a parade of girls in their prom dresses.
Getting through all the fondue courses most likely took a while. In the end, the meal wasn't cheap, but hopefully it was memorable.
That special-occasion focus helped grow the Tampa-based chain to 140 locations in 36 states, Canada and Mexico. Fans associate dipping food into cheese, chocolate and broth as celebratory and romantic. It's fun, different and tasty.
But with today's emphasis on fast-casual chains — restaurants where you can get good food quickly at an affordable price — that strategy got stale. A bad economy made diners more strapped for time and money. The company needed to see customers on a more frequent basis, not just for special occasions.
The restaurant responded with an all-new menu that offers more a la carte dishes and customized meal options. It dropped the "Big Night Out'' items for you-pick-three entree selections and a four-course experience. It pared the wine list to more bottles under $50 and added craft beers and speciality cocktails. Rather than order chocolate fondue for two, diners can get an order for $7.95 per person.
"We've unbundled a lot of the menu items,'' said Robert Margait, the Melting Pot's director of restaurant operations. "Guests are getting exactly what they want. There's more mixing and matching.''
The changes rolled out nationwide this year and so far have shown tasty results. Sales are up 5 percent and guest counts are up 7 to 8 percent, he said. Even though some of the menu prices are lower, the average bill has dropped only $1.30, a signal that people will spend money if they think they are getting a good value.
Founded in 1975, the Melting Pot is owned by Front Burner Brands, the Tampa parent company of Burger 21 and GrillSmith, and has 19 locations in Florida, including ones in Carrollwood and St. Petersburg.