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Q&A: Bob Johnston, Chief Executive Officer, Melting Pot

Johnston discusses the history of the brand and why it remains successful

1851 Franchise: Tell us about the history of the Melting Pot.

Bob Johnston: The Melting Pot was founded by two friends in 1975 outside of Orlando, Florida. My brother, Mark Johnston, who was putting himself through college at the time, was one of the first employees. Then when Mark graduated from college, he wanted to open up his own Melting Pot location. So the founders granted him a “franchise,” but really, it was a loose agreement. He and our older brother, Mike, opened that second Melting Pot on April 27, 1979 in Tallahassee, Florida, where our family was located. I was in high school at the time and wanted to support this exciting opportunity, so they brought me on to wash dishes. At that time, I didn’t have a dream to be in the restaurant industry; I just wanted a job so I could buy my first car. 

1851: What kept you around?

Johnston: As I got into guest service, I really got a charge out of it. I like to say I received two paychecks — the literal one, and also the one that came in the form of the satisfaction I got from putting on a good show and entertaining people. And although I didn’t start with a restaurant background, that’s the story of a lot of our franchisees. There’s a great emotional connection with the consumer that other brands would love to have. So that is our cornerstone. Melting Pot is not just satisfying appetites. 

1851: What are the differentiators for your brand?

Johnston: You have to start with the unique nature of the meal itself. We’re a fondue restaurant, and there’s not a lot of competition. We’ve created a stronghold in this niche by executing it extremely well. Also, our customers have developed a unique cult-like connection with us. They come for the special moments in their lives, but also when they want to make an ordinary night a little more special. They don’t want just another cooked meal. They’re hungry for an experience. So we create memories that they carry with them. 

1851: Tell me about your franchise support. 

Johnston: That’s a point of pride for us. I don't know anybody who provides the level of support and training we do. We're very committed to our franchisees, so I think that is a benefit of choosing an investment opportunity with us. The concept itself is time-tested. We didn’t just come on the scene; we’ve got the systems and processes figured out. 

1851: Who are some of your main competitors?

Johnston: For me, it’s hard to think of a direct competitor that is largely a franchise like we are. Others have compared us to the higher-end steak houses like Flemings or Ruth's Chris. Also, P.F. Chang’s and Cheesecake Factory, which is somewhat puzzling until you consider that they’re big experiences. But it’s anyone in an “eater-tainment” — which is dining plus an experience. The franchisees are looking for another, bigger level of experience. They don’t want just another sandwich shop. They want to be a big part of the community. Our franchisees tell us stories about how when they wear their Melting Pot shirt out in public — at the grocery store, or wherever — people always come up to them to tell them about how special our restaurant is to them. They want a successful, proven business model they can feel proud to tell their neighbor that they own.

1851: Who are some of your key players in leadership?

Johnston: There’s John Crawford, our executive vice president. I think he got into the restaurant industry shortly after birth. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool operator. He's committed to helping franchisees move their business further. He's one of our newer team members and moved from Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and also Roy’s. Ana Malmqvist, our CMO, is a brilliant marketer trained at Proctor and Gamble and has represented multiple restaurant brands. Scott Pierce is our CFO, who comes from public accounting. And during the challenges of last year, Scott has been providing great information and support to our franchisees. He’s loyal to our brand to an unparalleled degree. Dan Stone, our chief operating and development officer, came from the hotel industry and worked at Marriott and is focused on innovation and new concept development. Bud Culp, our chief business and legal officer, has represented and been in-house counsel for a number of franchise systems.  His career has been focused on the franchise model and oversees franchise development. 

1851: And what is your role?

Johnston: I’m involved in the business every day.  As the majority owner of the company, I am in a position to clear obstacles for the team so they can support franchisees and continue to position the brand for a strong re-emergence after the pandemic. 

1851: Where do your franchise leads come from? 

Johnston: We have been on a pause for franchise growth. Historically, however, our candidates are people who have dined in the restaurant, love the format and then discover that they can own a Melting Pot themselves.  Due to the strength of the brand and our team, we have found that once a franchise candidate meets with us and we decide they are a good fit, very rarely has a candidate decided to not move forward with the Melting Pot.