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MELTING POT MENU REVAMPED, REFOCUSED

Think of the last time you went to the Melting Pot restaurant. 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 of the fondue courses most likely took awhile. 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 with celebration and romance. 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 on 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 down the wine list for more bottles under $50 and added craft beers and speciality cocktails. Rather than order a chocolate fondue for two, diners can get a single 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 were rolled out nationwide earlier 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 by only $1.30, a signal that people will spend money if they believe 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.

Forget a basic birthdaycake. The Red Elephant Cafe is celebrating its first anniversary in South Tampa by adding breakfast.

The restaurant at 111 S Dale Mabry Highway - at Kennedy Boulevard - started serving breakfast on Monday with egg-centric pizzas, wraps and Home Fry Bowls (egg and cheese dishes served over home fries). Breakfast runs from 7 to 11 a.m. weekdays and from 8 to 11 a.m. weekends, after which the restaurant switches to lunch.

General manager Kris Maronpot said breakfast was added because so many customers had asked for it, and employees were already in the restaurant making morning catering orders. Among the menu highlights are sticky buns, French toast, smoothies and traditional breakfast items such as eggs Benedict and biscuits and gravy - everything made from scratch.

Depending on the success, the Tampa-based chain founded by Outback Steakhouse alum will consider expanding the breakfast menu to its seven other Red Elephant Pizza and Grill locations. Throughout the month of May, the restaurant will donate 10 percent of breakfast sales to Voices for Children for the Guardian ad Litem program.

I've never been a bigfan of Sunday brunches. I either eat too much or, if I don't, I feel as if I didn't get my money's worth. This one made me do a double take. Armani's at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay is having a Mother's Day brunch on May 12 with champagne and a northern Italian-inspired buffet to "better celebrate sophisticated moms.''

The price might make Mama faint: $90 per adult, plus tip. (Children ages 6 to 11 are $34.50, and those under 5 are free.) It will run from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and, as of Monday, was about halfway booked.

For reservations, call (813) 874-1234.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

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