Towson fondue restaurant put on hold for food-handling plans County officials concerned about cooking by patrons

July 29, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Forget the fondue forks. Towson diners won't be dipping into a communal hot pot anytime soon.

The opening of the Melting Pot in the 400 block of York Road -- set for this week -- has been delayed while county officials fret about food preparation at the restaurant where patrons will cook food in fondue pots at their tables.

The county's food patrol is concerned that fondue ingredients -- including raw beef, shrimp, chicken and pork -- could become tainted with bacteria during the preparation and cooking process. It is seeking additional food-handling plans and safety studies from Melting Pot officials.

"This is the first time I've ever seen this type of operation," said Ian Forrest, chief of the county's Bureau of Waste Management and Community Services, which oversees food handling in the county's 2,900 restaurants. "The main concern is to make sure the consuming public is protected."

But owners of Melting Pot Restaurants Inc., a franchise company based in Tampa, Fla., said they have never encountered this type of roadblock in a 23-year history that has produced 46 restaurants in 15 states, including a Maryland establishment in Rockville.

"We've been safely and deliciously cooking food for that long," said Mark Johnston, a company vice president. "We've never, ever been questioned by any health department to date."

To ensure safety, trained servers provide instructions on how to prepare and properly cook the food, Johnston said.

He compared the preparation to Japanese steakhouses and Mongolian barbecues where food is prepared in front of customers.

"We're not that different," Johnston said "Fondue has been around in restaurants and in people's homes for a long time."

Fondue enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s when President Richard M. Nixon was in power and the often colorful pots were the wedding gift of choice. Like bean-bag chairs and lava lamps, the cuisine seems to be making a comeback.

The Towson franchise would be operated by Jeffrey L. Nichols and John N. Fox, who would run the 172-seat, dinner-only restaurant in the space vacated by Flutie Garcia, a Mexican restaurant that went bankrupt two years ago.

The two, who have run a similar restaurant in Wilmington, Del., for four years, plan to spend more than $300,000 on renovations and hire about 50 employees.

"We're trying to fulfill all the county's requests," Nichols said. "I don't understand cross-contamination. Restaurants throw the same food in woks and cook it."

The Melting Pot probably will be ready for business in September, if it gets a permit, he said.

"It's disappointing," said Susan DiLonardo, executive director of the Towson Business Association. "We feel the restaurant will be an asset because it offers something different."

Said Forrest, "I'm sure we can reach a point where our regulations can be satisfied. We want them to be in business."

But Nichols has been forced to cancel reservations, including one for a party of 16 people, he said. Still, he's optimistic.

"We're still excited to operate in that town," he said. "It's the first time we've encountered anything like this. But you can't blame anyone for trying to protect the public."

Pub Date: 7/29/98

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