A Pretzel of a Tale
Most companies have an interesting backstory, but Ben’s Soft Pretzels has one that’s more charming than most. Ben Miller, an Amish baker in northern Indiana, ran a bakery stand at farmer’s markets across northern Indiana. After given opportunity to buy a neighboring flea marketer’s pretzel company, he leapt at the chance, but ended up having to invent his own recipe. And so, Ben’s Soft Pretzels was born.
With a half hour of training from the seller, Miller, then a member of the local Amish community, studied recipes on his own and experimented until settling on his own pretzel recipe. Customers loved them. With the help of friends and business partners, Scott Jones and Brian Krider, they laid plans to franchise the new company.
“The best gift he’d ever been given was not to get the recipe or the name,” said Jones, president and CEO of Ben’s Soft Pretzels. “Sales went through the roof at the farmer’s market compared to the old store, and the people that walked up said, ‘Oh my gosh, this pretzel is so much better!’”
Continuing to also sell his other baked goods, the trio of friends decided to think big, and worked with a franchise lawyer to “professionalize the thoughts we had.” That included operation and manager’s manuals, scaling up distribution, creating a marketing plan and building the infrastructure to allow the company to expand to 43 locations, with many more on the horizon.
Living at the edge of modernity within the Amish community, Miller and his wife, Elizabeth, needed approval from the bishop to get a cell phone as their company expanded. Eventually, as the pretzel stores took off, they left the religion for a life of modernity at the helm of a fast-growing franchise.
While many aspects of their lives have changed—no more beards or skirts—Ben still creates the secret mix and is directly involved with “every pretzel that goes across the counter,” said Krider, co-founder and COO.
In-store partnerships with Walmart and Meijer have allowed the company to expand into high-visibility areas with significant foot traffic, and Ben’s Soft Pretzels has further plans to expand in the heartland states in the coming years.
“This year our goal was between 35 and 50 stores, and I think we’re going to be right around that 35 mark,” Krider said. “Then 2016, 2017 and 2018, in our minds, we’ll be adding 50 locations per year if not a little more.”
He added projections could significantly increase with another partnership in the works with a Midwest-based food distributor, as well as an upcoming focus on non-traditional locations like toll plazas, amusement parks, zoos and airports.
Looking back at their non-traditional rise within the franchise world, Jones said the company has been “tremendously blessed with divine providence,” adding that growing the company has been a fun experience and that, even with struggles to get it off the ground (long hours, no paychecks, etc…), it’s been “love at first bite.”