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The Melting Pot’s Plan to Modernize Fondue

If you have been to the Melting Pot before, it was likely on a date. Maybe it was a first date, where dipping bread cubes and apple chunks into a pot of burbling cheese, cooked right at your table, offered a welcome distraction from the awkwardness of getting to know a new person. My own first experience at the restaurant was a first date with a man whose name I do not remember, but I vividly recall that I accidentally (lightly!) stabbed him with a fondue fork whilst reaching for a chunk of bread.

Since its founding in the 1970s, the Melting Pot has been a special occasion staple, the kind of place where romantic little nooks for couples to canoodle provide the perfect spot to make googly eyes at a brand-new flame, or where the semiprivate booths perfectly nestle a family celebrating their kid’s high school graduation. It’s where you go when you’re freshly flush with cash from your first teenage job and want to feel fancy with your friends as you try to figure out how the hell to pronounce “Emmentaler.” The Melting Pot is undeniably gimmicky on some level, and it’s a gimmick that’s worked for more than 40 years.

But now, after those four decades — and nearly two since my fateful, totally accidental fondue stabbing incident — the Melting Pot is looking toward a new era. “People’s tastes are constantly evolving and changing, and we try to stay ahead of that,” says Melting Pot CEO Bob Johnston. For the fondue chain, that means selling people on the idea that a pot of Gruyere and raclette isn’t just for special occasions or worth visiting as a jokey bit, but is just as appropriate for a random Tuesday night.

A man and a woman sit in a restaurant booth as a server dressed in black addresses the table.

A server talks to Claire and Dan Sylvest while dining at the Melting Pot restaurant in Houston.

At one Oklahoma City location, the future of the Melting Pot looks bright. Natural light pours in through big street-facing windows in the cool historic building. Some of the restaurant’s familiar secluded booths remain, but much of the open space creates an atmosphere more suitable for groups thanks to larger tables, canary-colored banquette seating, and specially designed tables that can be easily pushed together. (It’s a more complicated task than one might think: Each tabletop cooking surface must be plugged into an outlet.)

In addition to the familiar tabletop fondue pot, in which diners cook proteins and vegetables in bubbling pots of cheese or broth, diners now have the opportunity to grill their own meats right at the table thanks to a cast-iron grill pan. There are new menu items like rosemary-scented fries, a no-brainer for dipping in cheese, and made-to-order appetizers like Buffalo cauliflower, fried green tomatoes, and pan-seared potstickers drizzled with teriyaki glaze.

“It’s a much sexier vibe in the restaurant,” Johnston says. “People want to feel like they’re part of a happening space; they want to feel good energy. Our old designs really were very separate and secluded, and the only people that you saw were the people in your party. People want to feel connected to something bigger.”

As I settled into my booth at a Melting Pot location in Addison, Texas, a couple of weeks ago, the contrast between old school and new felt stark. Its dining room felt like a relic of the 1990s, with tacky patterned carpets and dark wood blinds. Also absent were most of the menu upgrades — I was especially bummed that I could not dunk any crispy rosemary fries into my garlicky Alpine fondue — but for the second course, we were able to select the cast-iron grill pan, on which we would grill small chunks of steak and salmon. The dining room was largely empty, and our well-meaning server told us, apropos of nothing, that there were only three reservations on the books for the entire evening. Peering around the empty dining room, I wondered whether or not some new decor and seared potstickers would help; if they would be enough of a pivot to make Melting Pot feel less like a special occasion fondue restaurant and just… a regular old restaurant.

The first-ever Melting Pot opened in Maitland, Florida, a suburb of Orlando, in 1975. The menu was simple — two savory fondue options and chocolate fondue for dessert — and the restaurant quickly earned a dedicated following in the fondue-obsessed ’70s, when many folks owned their very own pot-and-burner setup for making the dish at home. As the Maitland location became more popular, employee Mark Johnston sought approval to open a second location in Tallahassee with his brothers Mike and Bob, the latter of whom worked one of his first jobs at the Melting Pot, washing dishes in the kitchen.

Now, Bob Johnston is the company’s CEO. In 1985, the brothers fashioned the Melting Pot into a franchise company, opening a few new restaurants every year; it currently has 96 locations in the U.S. Mike Johnston retired in 2020, leaving Bob and Mark as its sole owners. That year was also a truly pivotal time for the company: It launched an initiative called the Melting Pot Evolution, in which the company and its franchisees would invest $30 million to update the restaurant’s menu and bring an aesthetic refresh to its dining rooms.

An overhead shot of a person using tongs to add shredded cheese to a fondue pot. Alongside the pot a wooden serving board holds a cup of olives, chunks of meat, and crackers.

A person spoons scallions into a fondue pot filled with cheese and topped with bacon bits and sour cream.

Then, of course, came the COVID-19 pandemic, and fondue doesn’t really “pivot to takeout.” “No one was prepared for it. You wake up in the morning and you have zero revenue,” Johnston says. “We very quickly put together a to-go offering, but it made up only a fraction of what our normal sales would have been. People want that experience in our restaurants, not at home.”

In Oklahoma City, Melting Pot franchisees Mark and Becky Chapman had just started their “Evolution Initiative” when the pandemic forced restaurants to close their doors. “When COVID hit, we thought, ‘Crap, we’ve just made the biggest mistake of our lives,’” Mark Chapman says. “We had these secluded booths that we were taking out to kind of open the space up, and it was the worst time to do that.”

The Chapmans, who own two locations — one in OKC, the other in Tulsa — were among the first franchisees to invest in revamping their restaurants. The Oklahoma City Melting Pot, situated in a prime spot in the city’s downtown, is a short walk from the home of the OKC Thunder basketball team and not far from the vibrant Bricktown entertainment district. The dining room feels bigger, much brighter, and decidedly more modern than its counterpart restaurant in Addison, with bright pops of color, industrial finishes, and warm woods, plus plenty of exposed brick to maintain the building’s historical character.

COVID restrictions were lifted in the state just as the renovations were completed, and diners returned in droves after being stuck inside for weeks. The Chapmans say they saw a $1 million increase in sales in the months after, which Mark attributes in large part to the restaurant’s renovation.

Because the Melting Pot is operated by franchisees, there’s some inevitable variety from restaurant to restaurant, though the company tries to minimize that variation as much as possible. “As long as we come up with something that has the guest in mind, and fits in with the overall idea of what the Melting Pot wants to provide, they’ll give us some leeway,” Chapman says. “The operations, though, are very standard, and there are some things that you can’t deviate from. They want the experience to feel the same in Nashville or California or wherever you go.”

Retaining a sense of familiarity is key to any legacy brand, and is perhaps particularly acute with the Melting Pot in particular. When I visited in Addison, I sat next to a couple who had driven two hours to this location because — I kid you not — they didn’t like the more modern Oklahoma City dining room. (Later, the couple also casually mentioned that one of them had been “kicked out for saying something offensive,” which also meant they couldn’t go to the other Oklahoma outpost in Tulsa, because it too is operated by the Chapmans.) “You have to innovate if you want to stay relevant,” Johnston says, “but you also have to hang on to the core of your business.”

Man and woman at a restaurant table with purple and silver balloons tied to the back of it and a fondue pot in the center.

Haylee Palmer celebrates her 34th birthday over Coq Au Vin with Adam Warner at the Melting Pot restaurant on Westheimer on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, in Houston. Palmer has celebrated her birthday at the restaurant several years in a row.

“We still want to own celebrations,” says Scott Martin, a regional general manager for the Chapmans’ Melting Pot locations. “We want people to think of us if it’s Valentine’s Day or they get a big promotion or it’s their 10th anniversary; we want to be top of mind.”

The Melting Pot’s strategy positioning itself as an “everyday” treat goes beyond the dining room, too. In December 2023, the company started selling its fondue mixes directly for consumers to cook at home, both in grocery stores and via its website, the latter of which is a partnership with Omaha Steaks. It’s an interesting move, to take what is ostensibly a “fancy” experience and turn it into something that you can buy in a bag on grocery store shelves, but one that makes sense in the Melting Pot’s era of transition. The brand is, essentially, trying to be everything to everyone all at once. It wants to bring in new customers while still being able to offer the experience its change-resistant loyalists demand. And it’s continuing to scale: In February, the chain announced that it would offer major financial incentives to new franchisees to open new locations in an effort to “meet growing customer demand.”

And perhaps that’s because, even if the decor is a little dated, the appeal of a pot of melted cheese endures. There’s no denying that the fondue, the menu item that made the Melting Pot an American dining icon, is excellent. We opted for the classic Alpine fondue — a mix of Gruyere, raclette, and fontina spiked with garlic and white wine — which was rich and a little sharp and made even the tough stems of raw broccoli delicious. The same goes for the restaurant’s big finish, a pot of molten chocolate. Even if it isn’t the best quality chocolate you’ve ever had in your life, who doesn’t want to swirl cut strawberries and little hunks of pound cake in sweet, melty chocolate?

In a time when fondue itself is having a moment, the Melting Pot is at a crucial crossroads. Will it move into the future as a restaurant, with its Instagram-worthy sparklers attracting a whole new generation of fondue devotees who see it as more than just a special occasion destination? Or will it end up finding more success in the grocery aisle, a relic of ’70s nostalgia that can be simply warmed up on the stovetop? Either way, one thing’s certain — the cheese springs eternal.

Annie Mulligan is a photographer in Houston.

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