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The Melting Pot hopes new menu items can help its fondue adapt to diners' changing tastes

 
Lemon Pepper Chicken With Tricolor Quinoa
Lemon Pepper Chicken With Tricolor Quinoa
Published March 6, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The Melting Pot in St. Petersburg is ready to serve you FonDONE, an alternative to fondue.

Forty years ago fondue was a no-brainer. It was the height of the fondue craze, hosts everywhere melting cheese willy-nilly. Bruce Knoechel and Roy Nelson started their first Melting Pot in Maitland with just four tables and a limited menu: cheese, beef, and chocolate fondue. They would do it better than home cooks, with fancy cheeses and other ingredients not available in 1970s American grocery stores; they would make it a special-occasion restaurant fit for anniversaries and birthdays.

In 2015 that world has changed. Landfills have strata made nearly completely of wedding registry fondue pots and those little forks. But the Melting Pot, with headquarters in Tampa, soldiers on, with 132 locations worldwide.

At dinner Thursday at the Melting Pot in St. Petersburg, president Mike Lester unveiled the new prepared FonDONE entrees, explaining how his team has embarked on a campaign to adapt to the changing dining landscape. But just how does a restaurant with "Melting Pot, a fondue restaurant" over the doorway think outside of the pot? And why?

Because diners are different. There's the casualization of the American customer. We eat out more than ever, but we more seldom designate an outing as a "special occasion." Driven by the millennial generation, diners want to spend less time at the table, they want a lesser financial commitment, and they want the ability to tailor a meal to dietary concerns or tastes.

"We're protective of that celebratory experience," Lester said, but the company is trying to figure out under what circumstances their customers would feel comfortable dining outside of those special occasions.

Currently being tested only at the St. Petersburg location, the FonDONE entrees provide an interesting case study in how a successful single-subject concept attempts to expand its reach without muddying its brand.

For the first time ever, Melting Pot is cooking in the kitchen. For the Fourth Street N location, always the guinea pig for the company, this necessitated three new positions, staff retraining and $90,000 to retrofit the kitchen with a traditional hot line: hood, fryer, flat top, broiler and stove.

The goal is to transition three to six franchises (of the company's 132 locations, all but three are franchises) to this new model by the end of the year. For some franchisees, this new vision will be a financial impossibility — think of a first-floor location with 10 floors above where a hood system is prohibitive — so Lester is considering whether it makes philosophical sense to have two footprints for the brand. That in itself is a bold, nearly unprecedented move.

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Before your cooked FonDONE dishes arrive (that's the working name for now: fondue you do yourself; FonDONE is done in the kitchen), a waiter brings a warming pot of three dipping sauces — a goat cheese sauce, a gorgonzola marsala and a red wine demi-glace. Then you mix and match 18 small plates, $3.50-$9.95, and four sharable sides, $2.95-4.95. The proteins are between 3 and 4 ounces, so they're banking on about two per person.

This might mean a small filet mignon set against buttery mashed potatoes, or lemon pepper chicken breast plated with a tricolored quinoa with sweet roasted cherry tomatoes, or a swath of sesame-crusted rare ahi tuna perched atop a wasabi-amped edamame mash.

How big a departure is this from the traditional Melting Pot experience? Huge. According to Lester, the regular menu was designed and packaged for people to get all four courses (other restaurants average 2.2 courses per person). It's still a communal experience and there's still a pot in the center of the table, but this is much more of a contemporary small-plate approach at a fairly modest price point.

Other changes have been rolled out concurrently as a test at the St. Petersburg location: A new iPad ordering system has debuted, food runners have been hired to assist servers and now cheese fondue is made in the kitchen, not tableside. The rationale for this last change speaks to those millennials' need for speed. In a traditional Melting Pot meal, it took 25 minutes until diners took their first bite (an average restaurant is 10 to 12 minutes).

Lester says his goal is to be "brand consistent but not harmfully rigid," and this is a period in which restaurant brands are forced to evolve faster, without mindlessly chasing trendiness.

The success of FonDONE will be measured by consumer metrics from frequency of dining to, of course, sales and profits. The question is whether these two dining strategies can be seamlessly integrated and whether the unique, experiential nature of the Melting Pot is muted by this new paradigm.

Lester is bullish, although he says this idea, a seed in 2011, took a while to take root.

"At the Franchise Advisory Council, we asked, with no restrictions, what should the Melting Pot look like," Lester said. "Cooking food was a crazy idea at that meeting."

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.