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Consumer Demand for Shared Meals Helps Drive Melting Pot Sales

January 26, 2024 Franchise Times

When guests go to The Melting Pot, they’re not just coming to satisfy their physical appetite, but their emotional appetite as well, CEO Bob Johnston said.

That combination, he believes, has fueled the brand’s success for nearly 50 years and is what’s helping it beat pre-pandemic sales figures. The fondue restaurant franchise did $226.5 million in systemwide sales in 2022 from 96 units, well above the $187 million in sales it reported in 2019.

“The DNA of the concept hasn’t changed,” Johnston said. “It revolves around the experience, people gathering with those they care about. It’s about what’s going on around the fondue pot as much as what’s going on in the fondue pot. That has been and always will be the cornerstone of the concept.”

That doesn’t mean the brand hasn’t invested in innovation over the years, including technology to enhance the guest experience. One example that’s been beneficial for both the company and customer is its loyalty program, Club Fondue.

“There are over 2.4 million members in that club,” Johnston said. “We have a very large database of loyal users, and we’ve been able to slice and dice that database to have a greater understanding of our most loyal users who return frequently and spend the most. We’ve been able to target our messaging accordingly to get results.”

Johnston’s ties to The Melting Pot go back to his teenage years. His brothers were the brand’s first franchisees, starting in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1979. At his family’s locations, Johnston began working as a dishwasher and later in the kitchen, and in 1985 the brothers bought the five-unit brand.

“For me, this is the only job I’ve ever had,” Johnston said. “It’s meant a great deal. It’s a privilege to have played a role in the growth of this brand. For me, the greatest joy in the work has been watching and playing a part in individuals accomplishing their dream of business ownership, in many cases, for the first time.”

One franchisee who achieved that dream is Ian Ruppel, who began working for the company in 2005 and became an owner in 2018. After starting as a server, Ruppel is now the owner-operator of two locations in Florida and is also a partner in two units in Colorado. Like Johnston, Ruppel touted the brand’s ability to bring people together.

“I really enjoy celebrations and making someone’s night amazing,” Ruppel said. “The Melting Pot is very conducive to being part of those events. We’re built on people spending time with friends and family, it’s what we do.”

That model was challenged during the COVID-19 pandemic, as system sales declined by $63 million to $124 million in 2020. Putting the brand in an especially difficult position was its inability to rely on off-premises sales.

“Unlike a lot of restaurants, we couldn’t just pivot to takeout and delivery,” Johnston said. “Fondue doesn’t lend itself to that. We did what we can do, but we were limited. We had a greater challenge than perhaps some others did to keep the sales going.”

Fans of the company were more than ready when locations were able to reopen, though, and the way its restaurants are designed allowed for plenty of traffic.

“The Melting Pot has an advantage in that every table is secluded,” Ruppel said. “Even as the pandemic was going on, we already had separation and tables spread out. Since the pandemic, our guests have been willing to come out. Like everyone else, we’re now going through a downturn, but not as much as everyone else. What we have is the experience.”

“The fact that dining is a communal experience did not hamper our ability to grow sales once we were allowed to begin serving guests in the dining room again,” Johnston said. “What we do is exactly what people were looking for. They were tired of being cooped up and they wanted to spend time with those they care about. The Melting Pot provides the perfect opportunity for that. We didn’t have to beg people to come back, they were lined up and ready, and that continues today.”

At his restaurants, Ruppel said traffic has basically returned to the standard he saw in the 2010s. Johnston, meanwhile, said he expects three more locations to open in 2024 and to sign on eight more franchisees.


Franchising Times

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