With the challenges facing casual dining, many operators in the space try to offer their guests not just food but an experience — something to remember that makes the time, money and effort of visiting a full-service restaurant worthwhile.

These efforts, though, often boil down to elevated finishes, especially in the bar, along with a few extra seating options.

Melting Pot 3Peninsula tables at the bar and cubbies showcasing specialty cocktails are part of the bar enhancements that make The Melting Pot more appealing to everyday guests.Offering a genuine experience has never been a challenge for Tampa, Fla.-based The Melting Pot. How could a restaurant offering meals starring shared cheese and chocolate dips not deliver an experience?

But with a new prototype rolled out last year paired with new menu options, the chain now offers something different. More than a restaurant for special occasions, The Melting Pot now offers new experiences created a bit by the design itself, alongside dining and seating alternatives for consumers who aren’t out to turn a meal into an event and even some to-go options. The end result is something many casual-dining chains are after: an operation that gives guests not just seating options but the ability create the experience they want — however they define it.

Many of these changes grew out of consumer research The Melting Pot first conducted in 2013. According to Dan Stone, the chain’s chief business and people development officer, that research showed there were barriers to consumers visiting The Melting Pot. Specifically, the barriers involved the expense, time commitment and self-service nature of a full fondue meal. At the same time, research showed guests wanted the chain to remain a place for special occasions.

“[Offering experiences] can be a double-edged sword because if you leverage that too much, then some people view you as that thing you do once in a while,” says Stone. “With the evolution, I want people to use us for that special occasion and to choose to use us in different ways and come and visit us more.”

Overcoming the barriers customers cited in the chain’s research was largely (though not exclusively) a matter for the menu. For decades, says Stone, it was simply not possible to get a non-fondue meal at The Melting Pot.

The chain, then, introduced new options that are cheaper, quicker and don’t require guest participation. These include paninis and entree salads offered at price points that make them realistic for lunch or a non-occasion meal. Notably, the chain stayed on-brand by making different cheeses key ingredients in many of these dishes.

Not surprisingly, changes to the menu brought about major changes to the chain’s kitchen equipment package. The chain added a double combi oven, fryers, hood and refrigeration in order to prepare its lunch, brunch and “No Pot Required” menu. Notably, The Melting Pot selected equipment items that will be easy to add into stores during remodels/retrofits, the company says.

While the challenges presented by The Melting Pot’s menu are specific to the concept, the new design takes the idea of experience-based dining in some new directions and offers spaces that are comfortable for everyday outings.

Melting Pot 1The Melting Pot’s new cheese and chocolate bar enables guests to watch staff make fondue dishes while also providing a natural spot for retail/to-go sales.On the everyday front, the chain changed its color palette and general floorplan. The previous design used darker tones and wood finishes that conveyed the idea of special-occasion dining a little too well. The new design has brighter, more approachable colors and open sightlines, making the restaurant more approachable for those just out for a meal.

These same guests also can sit at The Melting Pot’s upgraded outdoor patio, a space where guests can just hang out without feeling out of place.

That’s not to say the new design is plain. The bar in The Melting Pot’s new prototype has upgraded finishes and features. These include peninsula tables attached to the bar itself, encouraging more group interactions at happy hour and beyond, as well as displays of the chain’s signature cocktails on the backbar, making ordering one of these drinks a mini-event by itself.

The chain has also added an entirely new bar section, the wine-tasting area, where guests can sample several different wines, even those at a higher price point typically sold only by the bottle. “It gives our guests a low-risk entry point,” says The Melting Pot President Mike Lester. “They might have wanted to try some really nice, expensive wine, but they didn’t want to commit to an entire bottle because of the price. Here, they can have a sample of just one ounce and understand if they might like it. Guests have been able to explore and try some really interesting wines.”

A similar space is the new front-of-the-house cheese and chocolate bar — the chain’s version of a display kitchen. Here, cheese- and chocolate-tenders (so dubbed by the chain) prepare fondue pots for diners and happily interact with guests, even handing out samples. The Melting Pot, notably, took advantage of this area to better promote its retail and to-go offerings, creating displays suitable for items like chocolate-dipped strawberries, as well as to highlight cheeses and chocolates in their unmelted forms.

Even with these new experiences, The Melting Pot remains a place to go for a special occasion, though in a way that matches the updated design and ambience. In the prior design, the Lover’s Lane section often was separated with dividers such as curtains. In keeping with the desire for clear sightlines, this space has been opened up a bit, with privacy and romance created by the nearby candle wall.

This setup, in a way, embodies what the chain has achieved with its new design: a space that embraces what’s always made The Melting Pot stand out while integrating new elements and aspects that make it a good fit for all sorts of occasions.