‘Unseen hand’ guides Ben’s Pretzels
“We just made it like we thought we would like a pretzel to be,” co-founder Ben Miller says.
When unseen forces spring up in a business, it’s not typically a good thing, but the team at the 50-unit, self-funded snack franchise dubbed Ben’s Soft Pretzels credits a bit of divine providence for their ongoing growth.
Back in 2004, Ben Miller and his wife, Elizabeth, were already successful Amish bakers, selling their goods at a flea market. To keep things going through the winter, the Millers started selling their bread, turnovers and cookies at the South Bend, Indiana, farmer’s market. Ben Miller said an unseen hand brought them to a booth next door to a family pretzel business.
“We ended up beside this lady that was making soft pretzels,” said Ben Miller. “She said, ‘You guys want to buy a pretzel booth?’”
The sellers wanted out of the business, and were looking to sell it or the equipment was destined for a garage. The Millers’ interest was piqued, but they didn’t know anything about soft pretzels.
“I don’t think we ever ate a soft pretzel before that,” said Miller. “We sat down at the table to do the transaction and they said they weren’t going to let the name of the business go with it or their recipe.”
Without the name or the recipe, they didn’t see much of an opportunity, so they halved their initial bid to about $7,000 for the equipment and the booth space.
“Then my wife went to work to create a recipe. We just made it like we thought we would like a pretzel to be,” said Miller, who said it was quite a short turnaround. “We bought it on a Saturday and that was their last day. We had to show up in that booth next week with a recipe and man the booth.”
Ultimately, the lack of a pretzel recipe was a saving grace for the couple. It allowed them to think up an original recipe—and with a few dozen burned pretzels as they figured out the oven, it became the cornerstone of Ben’s Soft Pretzels.
The company, with 50 units stretching from Texas to Florida and north to Wisconsin, is still using the same recipe for all their pretzel snacks and pulling in a unit average of more than $300,000 in revenue.
The Millers didn’t set out to create a franchise growth brand. That was Brian Krider and Scott Jones, an entrepreneurial duo with business and marketing backgrounds at various companies, large and small. The pair had already been wholesaling the Millers’ baked goods, but mostly they were hunting and fishing buddies, helping out with the business side of the bakeries. It wasn’t until after the Millers had a following at the farmer’s market that either of them had even tasted Ben’s pretzel recipe.
“One day after a hunting trip, Ben says, ‘Hey, you need to come try this pretzel,’” said Jones. “It was love at first bite, so I couldn’t wait, I had to introduce Brian to the product. He fell in love with it, and we really knew we had something special.”
The group wrote up a business plan in 2007, planning to franchise from the beginning. They recorded every step in the pretzel-making process and all the training necessary to run a pretzel stand for those future franchisees. They used savings to fund the first store in 2008, baking all the pretzels fresh and making sure that none of them sat for more than 30 minutes, something that became a key differentiator at the core of the future franchised locations.
“We knew that we wanted to franchise, that was in our original business plan,” said Jones. “However, we didn’t know what that looked like until we got closer to it.”
While he and his family were still in the Amish community with few allowed modern amenities, Miller was able to get special permission from an Amish bishop to use a cell phone for the business. But in those early days Miller was beginning a spiritual journey that would ultimately lead him away from the Amish community.
As the business grew, he started thinking about mission trips and ways to help others: two things that the isolated Amish community didn’t support. In December 2009, when the company counted two corporate stores, the Millers left the church and the community they had always known.
“We found out what it is to forsake your family because all of our family is still Amish and my wife’s dad is a bishop,” said Miller. “So they shun us, we can’t really go home, it was a hard thing to do. You’re born into it, all your friends are there, your mom and dad are there—it’s your whole life. Then to step out of that, it was hard.”
Ultimately, Miller said, the business didn’t have anything to do with his family’s exit from the community. “There was no, ‘Oh the company is getting bigger and we want to drive cars,’” said Miller.
The first year was hard for the family, but as the company expanded Miller stayed busy and the family found new friends. The company began focusing on sports arenas and festival grounds, and people started calling about getting their own Ben’s Soft Pretzels stand.
They started getting serious about the prospect in 2012, retaining a franchise attorney. And a year later, they sold the first unit. It was then that the business could support all three core members full-time.
“In March of 2013, we sold our first franchise to our initial franchise partner,” said Krider, noting that first franchisee is still their largest. “And from that he now has five locations open.”
They also built a robust training program to disseminate their detailed record of how to run the business well. Miller said he hopes to take on more of a training role as the business grows.
“My biggest concern is that we sell somebody a franchise and it’s not successful. That’s my biggest fear,” said Miller, whose team is known as “Pretzilla” for their retail prowess.
Before long, a little more of what the team saw as divine providence came into play—what they call an unseen force decided it was time for them to forge a partnership with Walmart and grocery chain Meijer. Miller said aside from their fast growth, that was one of the few things that surprised him along the way.
“Just how Walmart found us, came to us and Meijer came to us was really surprising,” said Miller. “A store manager was at one of our markets and was like, ‘Hey, they told us at corporate we need to put feelers out to fill our little spaces, would you like a contact number?’”
Unbeknownst to Miller, Krider had also just gotten in contact with a Walmart rep. “That’s where this divine intervention has come into our life. I didn’t know Ben was talking to them, Ben didn’t know I was talking,” said Krider. “But it just happened within the same 48 hours.”
Before long, a master agreement was in place with both companies and they had access to 5,000 Walmart locations and hundreds of Meijer locations and all the foot traffic therein.
Between there and the 50 units today, it was just a matter of keeping up with the growth. The team plans for 150 units over the next three years, and sees a capacity for 350 stores with the current infrastructure.
As they grow, so does the company’s community outreach. With bake-your-own pretzel kits supporting school fundraisers, and Miller working with a Belize orphanage to sustain itself via a baking program, the founders continue to operate by the golden rule, as if that divine hand is not far away.