When The Melting Pot opened in Atlantic City in December 2007, Owner Charlie Haney was perfectly fine with opening an upscale restaurant with a dining experience that most people would go to for special occasions a few times a year.

After all, he was initially "blown away" by the fondue restaurant chain while on business on the West Coast, and thought The Melting Pot would be perfect for The Walk, which attracted a diverse crowd of locals and visitors.

He was right. The Melting Pot has been so successful that it has actually "exceeded my expectations in every regard," Haney says. "When we first came here, a lot of people never tried fondue before. In fact, I would still say 50 percent of our business is still first-timers. And we keep growing and growing each year. That's because I know once people try The Melting Pot, they're going to love it."

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Now, Haney is hoping a new country-wide, corporate change will help grow his business even more. The concept is still the same: diners select the type of cheese fondue for an appetizer, then a salad, an entree and cooking style and, finally, a chocolate fondue for dessert. Before, the menu was designed for couples and group experiences. Now, the menu is designed to allow people to come in and order for one, so solo diners can eat or couples and groups can choose exactly what they want instead of compromising.

"This is the most drastic change since we opened," Haney says. "We have had many marketing events and live music and happy hours along the way, but this is by far the largest overall change. And it's the entire brand spending several years developing this menu through quantitative and qualitative research from an outside company that was conducted over a two-year period to get where we're at today."

Haney explains the former Melting Pot strategy was targeted at its "Big Night Out" option, which offered a four-course experience for two with a $100 price point. Now, people can come in and just order cheese or chocolate, as well as individual entrees.

"The problem from a corporate standpoint was that most people perceive The Melting Pot as expensive because, frankly, we always advertised our starting point was the $100 Big Night Out," Haney says. "So the brand became known as a one- or two-time-a-year special occasion restaurant. So now people can come in and order for one and also give everyone plenty of flexibility. When you break it down per course, per person, the new menu puts us in line with other restaurants and even lower than many of the fine restaurants in Atlantic City."

So far, the new experiment has paid off in Atlantic City. Haney is seeing people share a lot more and picking and choosing what they want to make their experience more of a custom one.

"We are actually seeing people enjoying more food because they enjoy that they can order a couple of different cheeses and chocolates as opposed to just picking one per couple," Haney says. "And they don't have to spend a lot of money if they don't want to."

The best part of the changes is that The Melting Pot, overall, hasn't really changed at all. The modern decor with a beautiful glass wine wall and beautiful bar is as nice or nicer than most Atlantic City restaurants, particularly non-casino ones. There are three private-party rooms that can accommodate 12 to 52 guests, plus eight private tables for couples, dubbed "Lovers' Lane." There also are seven VIP rooms with sliding doors diners can close for ultimate privacy - which was a first for any Melting Pot restaurant when Haney opened his doors.

Eating fondue remains an easy experience as servers attend to diners and explain every step of the way of how to create meals with the built-in burner on each tabletop. In fact, they do most of the work for you. Some of the cheese selections, accompanied by fresh breads, vegetables, apples and sometimes nacho chips for dipping, include aged cheddar and Emmenthaler Swiss cheeses ($8.75) with lager beer, garlic and seasonings; the Wisconsin trio ($8.95) of fontina, Butterkase and buttermilk blue cheeses with wine, scallions and a hint of sherry; and fiesta ($8.75) with cheddar, lager beer, jalapeno peppers and salsa.

Popular salads include house salad ($7.25) with crisp romaine and iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese, fresh tomatoes, croutons, sliced egg and choice of peppercorn ranch or sweet and tangy house dressings; and the California ($6.95) with mixed baby greens, Roma tomatoes, candied pecans and Gorgonzola cheese with raspberry black walnut vinaigrette.

The most interactive part of dinner is the entrees, where people choose from four different cooking styles - seasoned court vegetable bouillon, a Caribbean-season bouillon, coq au vin or oil - then choosing entrees such as teriyaki-marinated sirloin ($22.95), honey orange duck breast ($23.95), Atlantic salmon ($23.95), filet mignon ($25.95), Memphis-style BBQ pork medallions ($23.95) or wild-caught mahi mahi ($25.95). Guests can enjoy the entrees by themselves or a combination of three for $23.95 or two selections and a lobster tail for $33.95.

Although not labeled the Big Night Out anymore, four-course experiences remain on the menu with solo portions and about 10 choices such as The Classic ($45.95) with Angus sirloin - a new menu item - BBQ pork, Pacific white shrimp, herb-crusted chicken and teriyaki-marinated sirloin; the Seafood Trio ($41.95) with mahi mahi, Pacific shrimp and salmon; Land & Sea ($39.95) with filet mignon, chicken and shrimp; and Good Earth Vegetarian ($36.95) with fresh vegetables such as edamame, onion rings, artichoke hearts, Portobello mushrooms and asparagus with Thai peanut-marinated tofu, spinach and artichoke ravioli and wild mushroom sacchetti.

Entrees are served with plenty of vegetables, pasta and six different dipping sauces that nicely go into six compartments on new plateware recently purchased by Haney.

"The old-looking pewter plates are gone, and we now have beautiful, white glass plates with compartments for sauces and plenty of space for the entrees, too," Haney says. "They make a big difference."

Of course, one of the main reasons to go to The Melting Pot is for the chocolate experience. There are eight choices, with standouts including cookies 'n cream marshmallow dream ($8.95) with dark chocolate, flambeed marshmallow cream and Oreo cookies; bananas Foster ($8.95) with bananas and a hint of cinnamon swirled in white chocolate; and Yin & Yang ($8.95), a mix of white and dark chocolate.

Haney says early signs indicate the huge menu change was the right move for The Melting Pot to move into the future and compete with other concepts.

"I am not going to lie. I was initially concerned about it, as were other franchisees," Haney says. "But as the menus rolled out, we have seen increases in guest count and have not seen much of a drop in average spend. They are ordering more food and maybe even more drinks. But they are having even more fun and feel like they are making it more of a personal experience. I am very happy with the changes. We are receiving great feedback, so the goal is to see more people come in on a regular basis. It's a fun, interactive way to eat. Children love it. Couples love it. Groups love it. It's just a fun night out. "

More changes for Melting Pot

Soon, every Melting Pot will be able to source its own variety of produce for its menu for dipping in cheeses. That means the selections can go beyond the typical broccoli, cauliflower and carrots to buy local, seasonal produce for dipping and offering customers a more Jersey Fresh experience. And starting in October, The Melting Pot will install its own ovens to bake park-baked bread that will be sliced to order so guests receive fresh, warm bread to dip into cheese. Also, by the end of the year, more dippers will be added for chocolate, too, so diners can customize their dessert plate from the current strawberries, bananas, cheesecake and pound cake offered for dipping.

Other Haney restaurants

Aside from The Melting Pot, Owner Charles Haney, an Egg Harbor Township resident, opened two other concepts in the Voorhees Town Center. Burger 21, a new concept from the same franchise group as The Melting Pot, is the second location of the franchise and includes all fresh, Angus beef burgers as well as hot dogs, seafood, turkey, chicken and veggie burgers plus a full range of sides, shakes - including some with alcohol - a full liquor license with plenty of craft beer and even a gluten-free menu. It is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Go to Burger21.com. Also, Rodizio, the only authentic Brazilian steakhouse in South Jersey, features an amazing salad bar, 12 meats at lunch and 17 meats at dinner that include filet mignon, sausage, chicken, lamb, bacon-wrapped turkey, top sirloin and more. Prices range from $11.99 for the gourmet salad bar at lunch, $17.99 with the carved meats to $18.99 for the salad bar at dinner, $32.99 with meats. Go to RodizioGrill.com.

Specialty drinks

In addition to an impressive wine list, The Melting Pot also boasts imaginative specialty drinks. The Yin & Yang ($11.95) could be served as dessert alone with its Stoli vanilla vodka, Godiva white-chocolate liqueur blended with vanilla ice cream and chocolate shavings. Also on hand is the tart creme brulee martini ($9.95) and the mint kiss ($9.95).

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