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This Dishwasher-Turned-Entrepreneur Built a $200 Million Fondue Empire (and He Doesn’t Even Have an Office)

The man behind the wildly popular and very sexy, The Melting Pot restaurant, shares his journey to the top.

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BY Marcel Schwantes - 10 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

What's been a memorable dining experience for you? Mine came about two years ago when I discovered The Melting Pot -- a restaurant offering entire meals revolving around several delicious fondue cooking styles. (You can salivate like one of Pavlov's dogs by watching this captivating visual tour)

The customer experience was also top shelf. Tables came with flat-top burners for the fondue pots, and we got a communal, romantic (it was a double date), and interactive dining experience as we prepared, cooked (well, boiled, really) and ate right at our table.

While I'll leave a far more deserving food review to the real foodie critics, what is equally deserving for the rest of this piece is recognizing the man behind The Pot.

From dishwasher to CEO

Bob Johnston began his career washing dirty dishes in the back of The Melting Pot in Tallahassee, Florida. This was the late 1970's and he was only fourteen. Technically speaking, his older brothers, Mike and Mark, needed a dishwasher after scraping enough funding to open that Tallahassee location in 1979, so they recruited their little bro. At the time, it wasn't anything more than a part-time job for the youngest Johnston brother and he didn't see his future there.

Soon after, the brothers (whom Johnston attributes as mentors) opened another location in Tampa in 1981. By 1985, all three combined their resources and purchased The Melting Pot brand, establishing The Melting Pot Restaurants, Inc. There were only five restaurants at the time, and over a ten-year period it grew to nineteen.

As with most success stories involving hard-working entrepreneurs with a relentless drive and vision, the youngest Johnston stuck with it, learned on the job skills, and managed to work his way through every position in the restaurant until he rose to the ranks of President.

In 2012, Johnston left his post as President of The Melting Pot Restaurants, Inc. to become CEO and chairman of the board for Front Burner, the franchise management company for The Melting Pot brand. He has grown the "premiere fondue restaurant franchise" to more than 120 locations in 35 states and worldwide, including Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Not bad for a teenage dishwasher.

As of 2016, the total sales for The Melting Pot (TMP) franchises domestically and internationally was a hair short of $200 million. In 2016, Nation's Restaurant News, a top industry trade publication, awarded The Melting Pot with "No. 2 Casual Dining Restaurant," as rated by consumers.

In my interview with Johnston, he said, "When I became a dishwasher at my brothers' Melting Pot restaurant in Tallahassee, I would have never guessed that I would one day be the CEO of the restaurant management company for The Melting Pot. It wasn't until I was afforded the opportunity to provide service to guests that I fell in love with franchising and the restaurant industry. I engaged our guests and in return became more engaged with The Melting Pot brand and service model."

The key to his leadership success?

Being that leadership is my writing focus, I wanted to pinpoint Johnston's strategy and approach to motivating people and elevating TMP's company culture to its current level of success.

The key? Johnston told me that since the mid-90s, TMP has been using a servant leadership approach in the way they treat restaurant guests, franchisees and team members (employees) alike.

If you're just joining the servant leadership conversation, it's all about serving the needs of the people that work for you, so they reach their fullest potential and create extraordinary impact for the organization.

The premise for TMP's success comes down to what Johnston says is an unwavering focus on "treating our employees well, so they'll treat our customers well." He adds, "If you ignore the first part of the equation, you'll never get to the second."

And the employee experience under leaders like Johnston has been historically linked to great customer experiences. They go hand-in-hand like strawberries dipped in, well, chocolate fondue.

Interestingly enough, I found, even the name "Front Burner" (the franchise management company for The Melting Pot brand) has special meaning to show value for the employee. It represents the idea that a company's most important assets (it's employees) are similar to the front burners of a stove -- they're integral; they always report to duty; they're the only part of the kitchen that never breaks, despite how hard they work; and are usually under-appreciated.

The glue that holds it all together

For many companies, servant leadership is an aspiring concept that never gets real traction. At TMP, it lives and breathes operationally. Johnston expands further: "The key tenets of servant leadership align not only with the leadership culture of The Melting Pot, but also how we help our guests create great memories. Specifically, the servant leadership commitment to building community, growth, empathy, listening, awareness, and foresight have a direct correlation to our core vision and principles."

The principles Johnston speaks of are the glue that holds the culture together. They are the shared beliefs of TMP employees, translated into daily values of "fun, innovation, respect, excellence, integrity, and teamwork."

But here's the difference. While executives often give lip service to values and principles displayed on fancy plaques in their lobbies, but never actually hop down from their ivory towers to model them in the trenches, Johnston says their well-defined principles are clearly ingrained into the culture so that company goals and objectives are met. Top leaders, for the most part, are the ones that establish the culture, set it in motion through shared principles, and ensure that it trickles down to management, who then empower people on the front lines. But it all starts with the mind-set of a leader that boldly states, "We treat our employees well, so they'll treat our customers well."

Johnston adds more perspective in an interview with Franchise Update Magazine: "We've trained our team members on how to use those principles to guide their actions and how they handle their guests. This is not something people get in orientation and then forget, it's reinforced every day."

The franchisee experience

So how does all this translate to the people that matter the most for Front Burner -- the restaurant franchisees -- who have a large financial stake in the business, some investing up to $1 million to open a restaurant?

Mike Stygles, a successful multi-unit franchisee in the New York area since 2008, describes the servant leadership approach in a testimonial:

I would not have been able to do this without The Melting Pot's support in all aspects of my business; this is actually the primary reason I continue to grow with the brand. When you become a franchisee, you become part of the Melting Pot family and like all families, they want you to succeed. My continued expansion within the brand was due to their diligent commitment to serve franchisees. Due to their willingness to listen, collaboration with Melting Pot is easy. And while we may not always agree on everything, they have always been willing to explore feedback provided by the franchisees with sound research-based decisions.

While this may not be the majority franchisee view, it confirmed for me what every franchisee -- whatever industry -- aspires to feel from such a large, lifelong, commitment. And, frankly, the franchisee treatment at TMP is not typical of how franchisees are treated by other parent companies, some of which end up in ugly court disputes.

Biggest mistake he ever made?

Johnston openly admits two things: self-centeredness and putting profit over people early on. He expands further:

"I didn't create a clear mission statement. From 1985 to 1995, The Melting Pot tried to launch a franchise program, but things didn't progress as hoped. In 10 years, the Tampa, Florida-based concept only grew from five to 19 restaurants. We had trouble attracting franchisees because we were self-centered and focused primarily on the bottom line. Potential franchisees did not understand our principles and vision because we were not communicating well. Plus, we were making decisions for the wrong reasons--we should have been paying more attention to team members and guests.

The turnaround happened when The Melting Pot set priorities that got everyone on the same page. That meant welcoming equal input from management, suppliers, franchisees and team members alike about mission and direction. Now every one in the company -- from management to servers -- carry a four-panel card the size of a business card to remind them of their true heading. "It's a platform from which we can coach and develop," says Johnston.

Johnston told me that in simplest terms, "the company's mission centers on improving the quality of the experience." He added, "That translates into providing enough labor to make the guest experience the best; no more cutting corners to increase the bottom line; and investing in food quality and the physical plant."

During The Melting Pot's second decade under Johnston -- from 1995 to 2005 -- the chain grew from 19 to 100-plus units, and there are now over 120 restaurant locations domestically and internationally. He says he attributes that growth to the "power of an organization that has a single, concrete mission with the same thinking and goals."

A CEO with no office?

Certain cultural artifacts clearly identify "the same thinking" at Front Burner. Since Johnston has done away with the traditional hierarchy found at most companies, you'll find no private offices at their Tampa home base. Johnston explains the reason: "What your office looks like is supposed to be tied to who you are and your level of importance to the company. We just don't believe in that. Everyone is equally important and the environment reflects that."

Johnston sits in the open concept area with all of his employees to fuel mentorship and foster close collaboration. This leadership approach is growing across industries as more leaders are working alongside their tribe instead of separate from them.

 

The best example of this comes from Richard Sheridan, CEO and Chief Storyteller of Menlo Innovations, a software development firm in Ann Arbor, MI.

In a recent podcast, he shares about how his "office" is really just a five-foot desk strategically located in the middle of the room in an open-plan workplace. No condo-size office with floor-to-ceiling windows with the best view in town. The CEO of one of the most innovative software development firms in the world is right in the middle of the action.

Like Johnston, Sheridan cares less about status, position and rank, and more about innovation, creativity, and culture. As a result, Menlo has been named a top place to work for several years running.

'Same mindset with my employees'

A strong suit of servant-leaders is their natural tendency to eliminate status and be one with the team. Bob Johnston is no exception, and his empathy show through. He tells Franchise Update Magazine, "My years of working as a dishwasher, server, and manager caused me to have tremendous respect for the heart of the house of a restaurant. Without a great team, you have nothing to deliver and I have that same mindset with my employees."

Johnston shared with me that he is intentional about making sure his employees know they have him in their corner -- "celebrating their wins, appreciating different ideas, and breaking through barriers."

For Johnston, it's a deliberate effort to make work focused on "family and belonging." This passes one of the tests of servant leadership; any leader that claims to embrace and embody its cultural tenets, as Johnston does, their team members will feel equal, respected, and free to make decisions. In other words, they feel like family, and like they belong.

Practically speaking, at Front Burner, you can expect to observe these family rituals in action:

• Meetings conducted over a game of pool, on the office swing, or in the café-style kitchen where, Johnston says, "you can just huddle up and have these extemporaneous conversations that can result in amazing little sparks of an idea."

• Toto Tuesdays & Thursdays: One of their "All-Stars" gets to bring in their furry canine family member to work for a day full of dog friendly fun.

 

• Wordless Wednesdays: This cultural ritual allows everyone a few hours of quiet work time where no spoken words or scheduled meetings are used.

 

• Fun Fridays: Once a month around 4 o'clock, team members gather around the kitchen (called "Heart of the House") for some laughs, drinks, comradery, and an occasional "field trip" to support a local establishment.

• A commitment to giving back to their community. The Melting Pot supports St. Jude Children's Research Hospital as its national charity partner and has raised more than $10 million for the hospital since the partnership began in 2003.

In the words of franchisee Mike Stygles, "The home office's principle of 'Family and Belonging' has truly allowed my relationship to go beyond just business and grow into a working family relationship. It has truly changed my life and given me opportunities that I never even realized were possible."