President & Chief Concept Officer, Front Burner Brands
President, Burger 21
As president and chief concept officer of Front Burner Brands, the management company for affiliated concepts including The Melting Pot Restaurants, Inc., Burger 21 and GrillSmith, Mark Johnston focuses on growth and expansion of existing brands and ideation and development of new concepts.
Johnston works closely with the construction and design and real estate departments regarding development of locations and site selections and is involved in the culinary process during menu testing and development for all concepts.
Front Burner Brands, Inc. is a full-service and fast-casual restaurant management company headquartered in Tampa, Florida, and is affiliated with dynamic and niche-specific brands including The Melting Pot, the premier fondue restaurant franchise with more than 140 locations in North America, Burger 21, the “beyond the better burger” franchise concept, and GrillSmith restaurants with six locations in Tampa, Florida, as well as other concepts in development.
Johnston’s career at The Melting Pot started in 1976 when he served as both a server and manager at the Maitland, Florida location. He partnered with his brother, Mike Johnston, and opened the Tallahassee location in 1981.
In 1984, the second location was built in Tampa. Seeing the potential success of The Melting Pot, Mark and his brothers, Mike and Bob, purchased the restaurant concept from the original founders in 1985, launched the franchise program and grew this concept to be the premier fondue franchise in North America.
Johnston and his brother continued to explore the restaurant industry and opened another restaurant chain in 2004 called GrillSmith, a refined-causal, open-grill restaurant with six locations in the Tampa Bay area that are gaining momentum and growing in popularity. The goal is to expand GrillSmith across Florida.
Interested in diving into the fast-casual segment, Mark, his wife, Arlene, and his brothers, Bob and Mike, co-founded chef-inspired Burger 21 and launched the first location in November 2010. The national franchising program launched in September 2011 with plans to expand this “beyond the better burger” concept around the country.
In addition to creating and developing new restaurants, Johnston remains interested in acquiring existing brands with strong growth potential to create additional franchise opportunities.
Johnston graduated from University of Central Florida and has four boys, including a set of twins with his wife of more than 15 years, Arlene.
What do you think will be the biggest industry trend in the first half of 2012?
Value and quality will continue to go hand in hand, driven by the economic conditions experienced during the last several years. Consumers continue to show strong desire for higher quality food at more affordable prices. Thanks in part to the growing popularity of TV cooking shows, consumers have developed highly-educated palates. The more adventurous restaurant patron is here to stay and the demand for high quality chef-inspired food offered at a value will remain on the rise.
What issue would you most like to see positively addressed by Florida’s legislature?
I’d like to see a significant focus on job creation, economic growth and positioning Florida as an attractive destination for businesses to relocate. I’d also like to see continued support of tourism.
What is the single greatest factor in the success of your business?
For Burger 21 in particular, the innovation at the heart of the concept drives its success. The menu and recipes are chef-inspired and the details make the difference. Toasted brioche buns, pickled cucumbers, sweet potato fries with toasted marshmallow sauce and numerous other premium ingredients and combinations differentiate the concept. This innovation, combined with a focus on quality and consistency, sets Burger 21 apart and elevates it into a category of its own.
The success of The Melting Pot can be attributed to the concept’s ability to make fondue more than a meal, but a memorable dining experience that’s truly unique and interactive.
How has participation in FRLA positively affected your business?
FRLA supports and promotes Florida restaurateurs while also keeping us informed of issues facing the restaurant industry in Florida. FRLA provides a great forum to network and exchange ideas with others in the industry.
Is there anything you would like to share with Florida’s hospitality industry members?
While quality food should always be a key focus, it’s important to focus on the people aspect of the business – and not just customers but your team members. Your people are extremely valuable assets to your company.
How has your business strategy changed over the last few years?
With the launch of Burger 21, we’ve ventured into the fast casual segment for the first time. Our other concepts, The Melting Pot and GrillSmith are casual dining restaurants. For several years, our company has been interested in getting into the burger business, and we wanted to design a fast casual restaurant concept that offers a wide variety of high quality, chef-inspired burgers, shakes and more at an affordable price for consumers. We were in menu development for over a year before opening our first Burger 21 location in November 2010 in Tampa. Burger 21 has defined its own category within the burger business, placing it in a position to expand rapidly in the growing fast casual segment.
With The Melting Pot, we’ve begun shifting our focus to international growth over the last few years. With 36 international locations open, signed or committed for development in Canada, Mexico, the Middle East and Asia, we’re also looking to Australia, China, India, Brazil and other provinces in Canada for further expansion opportunities.
Our GrillSmith concept recently launched a rebranding campaign complete with a new creative look and feel, an innovative website and an overhauled menu to define the Tampa-based six-unit restaurant company’s identity for the first time since the concept originally opened in 2004. A key feature of the new menu is the addition of small plates, which are gaining popularity with consumers.