When Ralph Bower served as an Admiral’s Aide at the Pentagon, he had no idea taking the opportunity to become a Domino’s store manager would lead him to redevelop a brand—almost three decades later—from the ground up.
But he was ready. After Domino’s, he went to Western Ohio Pizza, followed by Yum! Brands, Popeyes, and Pei Wei.
The Melt approached Bower in 2016 with a vacant CEO position, and he was intrigued.
“It was an opportunity to really get in with a brand on the ground floor,” Bower says. “I would really develop what that brand would look like.”
Bower stepped into a position where he saw firsthand the growing pains The Melt experienced. Six locations had been built within six months, expanding to Colorado and Texas. With a lackluster menu and undefined company culture, it was a recipe for mediocrity, something Bower wouldn’t accept.
“Quite honestly, we weren’t really ready to grow yet,” Bower remarks. “One of the very painful things I had to do within the first year was close everything outside of California.”
With sights locked on the Golden State, Bower stripped the brand to its bones.
“One of the things that’s very interesting about The Melt’s story is the rebirth of this brand,” Bower says. “When I came on board, we had as many as 15 restaurants and then by 2017, pre-pandemic, we were down to seven.”
AUV was $700,000 per store back then. Now, those figures are at $3.5 million. How? Through the power of listening.
“When I came on board, I contacted every customer in our database and asked two questions,” explains Bower. “[I asked them] what they hoped I changed and what they hoped I didn’t change.”
He received 1,100 responses to those two questions, and he also asked his team members their opinions as well. At this point, he narrowed in on two core aspects that needed improvement: food and service.
“The fact of the matter is, the food was fine,” Bower says. “But fine isn’t good enough.”
What followed was a series of menu innovations, including a serious game-changer, The MeltBurger.
Using a blend of chopped Angus and wagyu beef, The MeltBurger stands out. By chopping the burger, the cheese sinks into every nook and cranny, and it’s topped with pickled jalapeño relish.
“There’s nobody in this country that makes a MeltBurger,” Bower says. “So, it’s unique and differentiated.”
Elevating the menu was one thing, but transforming the company culture and guest experience was a battle Bower was keen on winning. A Yelp review triggered this metamorphosis; it simply said, “I love it here.”
The brief message became the basis for all of The Melt’s core decisions. The company set out to make the “I Love it Here” experience true for every guest.
“What we have at The Melt is a vision statement that every single team member understands,” Bower says. “The power of aligning everyone around that one thought is super important.”
Another bombshell for The Melt was the pandemic, unsurprisingly; the chain lost virtually 80 percent of its sales overnight. However, The Melt already had an advantage with technology. The brand was originally founded by tech investors, allowing for acceleration of off-premises orders. Also, Bower leveraged COVID to his advantage through acts of good deeds.
The CEO remained firm in his decision to keep all restaurants open and guarantee paychecks for more than 140 of his Bay Area and Southern California employees. Additionally, he offered free meals to first responders, which went viral. Bower recalls lines of emergency personnel snaking down the street at the Stanford location.
The Melt’s La Jolla location experienced the same scenario, and Bower specifically highlighted that unit’s success. When the pandemic arrived, the location had been open for three years, never crossing the threshold of $20,000 per week. In 2022, it did $4.2 million, or $80,000 per week.
“The only thing you can tie that to is doing the right thing by our team members and the community,” Bower says. “And the community in turn doing the right things for you.”
By continuously delivering “I Love it Here” service and appetizing comfort cuisine, guests kept coming back even after the pandemic, the CEO says. 2020 became a record year for the brand, despite challenges and setbacks.
Bower is eager to expand but is careful not to outpace his people. He wants to ensure the company is growing at a rate that can still guarantee high-quality food and service. His goal is to add five to 10 locations per year, and 70 restaurants by 2026. Additionally, the company plans to open 20 licensed partner outlets in 2023.
“We do feel like we have the concept figured out, and we’re ready to grow,” Bower says. “Our challenge now is not doing it too fast to where we lose what makes us special.”