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Melting Pot (US) Adapting Restaurant for Saudi Arabia

17 Oct 2011 - The signature appeal of dinner at The Melting Pot restaurant is intimacy and romance in a cozy booth with wine and tabletop fondue. So how will The Melting Pot open up locations in Saudi Arabia, an Islamic-oriented country with strict cultural rules prohibiting alcohol and mixing of men and women in public? Answer: Much like every other U.S. chain has, by very carefully adapt everything American to local ways. It's a balancing act a slew of U.S. and European brands ? from Starbucks to Frederick's of Hollywood ? are attempting to cash in on the oil-rich region, without upsetting local sensibilities. Seven Melting Pot locations planned for the Islamic-oriented nation will have separate entrances for men and women, and a solid wall dividing the restaurant into two dinning areas: One for men, and one for families. The Melting Pot parent company, Tampa-based Front Burner Brands, is learning cultural lessons like these ever since the credit crisis turned the founder's eyes to Mexico, Canada, Indonesia, the Middle East, Australia, China, India and Brazil. "They'll still have the look and feel of a U.S. Melting Pot," said Dan Stone, vice president of franchise development for Front Burner Brands. "For places like Saudi Arabia, we've redone some layouts and ingredients ? but we've tried to keep the fundamentals of the experience intact."

Here in the United States, The Melting Pot positions itself as the quintessential romantic venue: Dark lighting, cozy private booths and a central fondue pot where couples warm up nibbles of meat for dinner and later dip their strawberries in melted chocolate. Dinner can easily top $50 per person, not including wine. That firmly positions The Melting Pot in the category of a special occasion event for most customers, a place for birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. With 140 locations already built in North America, that also means many domestic markets have all the Melting Pots they can support. Some of the first international lessons came when Melting Pot opened in Mexico last December. While the U.S. spots see many couples looking for privacy on weekends, the brand new location in Mexico City is seeing large families coming through weekends and weekdays.

Mexican guests also love being seen, Stone said, so developers built out a much more open layout with most tables in full view. Opening in Saudi Arabia required far more changes. Not that the Saudis don't like American chains. Rather, they love them, said Steve Augeri, a Connecticut native and fan of the Melting Pot who is now living in Riyadh as a human resources director with the American International School. Misconceptions aside, Augeri said Saudis as a people tend to love American culture, including the food. "Every chain you can possibly think of is here," Augeri said. "Quiznos, Subway, Dunkin, Starbucks, KFC, Hardee's ? even places that went belly-up in the U.S. are living on here." Those U.S. companies that do open in Saudi Arabia make huge changes, he said.

They all have two entrances and two separate dining areas. Even Starbucks locations that have glass storefronts will black out windows on the family dining area so they're not on display. Restaurants as prototypically American as Applebee's will have booths with curtains, and patrons will pull them closed for privacy. That said, a quiet atmosphere is far from guaranteed. "This is a very family-oriented culture, and kids especially are sort of coddled," Augeri said. "It's a late-night culture, so it's not at all odd for a family with children to have dinner at nine to 11 at night, and at chain restaurants, the kids are running everywhere like Chuck E. Cheese. It's chaos." Because women aren't permitted to work outside the home, all servers are male, and with summer high-temperatures regularly over 100 degrees, the air conditioning is typically turned down to frigid. The social rules vary a great deal depending on the location, said Iain Shearer, author of the Lonely Planet guidebook for Oman, UAE and the Arabian Peninsula.

Riyadh is the most conservative city, and if a single man walked in the Family section in a KFC, Shearer said they'd face shouting, flapping of hands and gesturing by the restaurant staff. In the more laid-back port-city of Jeddah, that would probably just trigger giggles and the staff showing the man the correct entrance. The "Muttuwwa" or Morality Police are actually banned from going into Jeddah restaurants to check up on the patrons, he said, and it's not uncommon to see both Saudi and western women eating in mixed groups at the trendy venues without head coverings. The rules also vary on whom is breaking them, Shearer said. "Americans will usually be assumed to be ignorant rather than willfully looking to cause offense," Shearer said. "Pakistanis on the other hand can expect arrest, a beating from the police, an uncomfortable imprisonment and ultimately deportation for even the most meager rule infraction."

Before the inrush of American restaurants, Saudis had no real history of going to restaurants, and traditionally entertained at each other's homes. Now, American restaurants offer a safe place outside the public/private dichotomy, he said, "and trolling down to Burger King has been lapped up by Saudis of all ages for the relative freedom it offers." Alcohol, however, presented a very stark problem for Melting Pot, and chefs had to revamp the menu and ingredients that used wine or beer in dips and sauces While "mocktini" mixed drinks without alcohol are hugely popular in Saudi Arabia, alcohol is basically forbidden.

On the plus side, the Melting Pot ethos of table-top cooking fits with many of the cultural ways of the Middle East, where groups commonly linger around a common meal for far longer than hurried Americans who adore fast food. The Melting Pot didn't go alone on its Saudi adventure. They signed a letter of intent with a developer that already operates several restaurants in Saudi Arabia, though Front Burner Brands declined to name their partner until the deal is fully consummated. They plan to open in Riyadh in early 2012, with a half-dozen other locations, including Jeddah.