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Auntie Anne's looks to catering and delivery

Auntie Anne’s wants to ‘bring pretzels to the people’

The chain looks to catering and delivery as mall traffic declines

Auntie Anne’s wants consumers to eat pretzels, even if they’re nowhere near the mall.

Lancaster, Pa.-based Auntie Anne’s, part of Roark Capital Group’s Focus Brands Inc., is a mainstay of America’s shopping centers, where many of its more than 1,200 domestic units are located. The chain’s pretzels, Pretzel Nuggets and Mini Dogs have become popular snacks for shoppers.

While Auntie Anne’s is still promoting itself to mall shoppers — it recently began a promotion called “Shoptoberfest” — it’s also working to attract customers outside malls. Efforts include catering, food trucks and, yes, delivery.

“Twenty-five years ago, we’re not having this conversation,” Heather Neary, Auntie Anne’s president, said in an interview. “Malls were doing great. But today we’ve got to be more creative.”

Auntie Anne’s was founded in 1988, when “Auntie” Anne and Jonas Beiler bought a stand in a Downington, Pa., farmer’s market and began selling pretzels and lemonade. The chain began franchising a year later and soon began expanding to malls across the country — and the world. Auntie Anne’s has about 500 locations outside the U.S.

But retail foot traffic has been declining for years as more consumers stay home and shop online.

Last year’s holiday shopping season was particularly tough for many retailers, leading to several bankruptcies, including Toys “R” Us, Radio Shack and Gander Mountain.

“At the end of the day, we’re not going to argue there are less people outside the mall,” Neary said.

Auntie Anne’s internal mantra is to “bring pretzels to the people,” she said, and the chain is finding more ways to do that.

One method is catering, a major industry trend. Auntie Anne’s has offered catering for years, but is relaunching the program with new packaging and materials, and is investing in advertising.

Catering “takes us from an impulse purchase to a more logical solution to afternoon meetings, tailgates and business events,” Neary said.

Events may include weddings and baby showers, where the pretzel’s flexibility creates interesting opportunities. At weddings, pretzels can be made into the initial of the couple’s last name. Or, they can be twisted into a “G” for girl or “B” for boy to serve at baby showers.

Auntie Anne’s is employing food trucks and concession trailers. Some operators have gotten creative with delivery, tapping the growing number of delivery services. Neary suggested the chain is planning to roll delivery out nationwide.

“It’s not national — yet,” she said, “And I mean that with a big asterisk.”

Delivery could provide more profitable orders because customers typically order more pretzels, hot dogs or nuggets than they would at a mall kiosk, for instance.  

“Maybe you’re sitting in the office one afternoon and decide you’re hungry for a pretzel, and someone else says, ‘I am, too,’” Neary said. “Soon you’re ordering a couple of original pretzels, some Mini Dogs and lemonade, and having it delivered to your office space.”

To be sure, malls aren’t empty, and the upcoming holiday shopping season is still important for Auntie Anne’s. The chain hasn’t abandoned marketing to mall customers.

“We want to capitalize on foot traffic and make sure we are the snack of choice for folks who are shopping and work up an appetite,” Neary said. “Shopping can be a stressful time with kids, and we want to make sure we’re there as a great little respite.”

Auntie Anne’s “Shoptoberfest” promotion earlier this month let customers get a free pretzel if they ordered one through the chain’s mobile app. The chain jokingly marketed a “Hands-Free Pretzel-Eating Apparatus” to make it possible to eat a pretzel while holding shopping bags.

“We had fun with it,” Neary said. ‘At the end of the day, folks still spend time in malls. We want to make sure we capture everybody in malls.”

Auntie Anne’s is also highlighting innovation. The chain currently offers Pumpkin Pretzel Nuggets. And this summer, it collected ideas for its next pretzel flavor and received more than 1,200 entries. After picking the top 10, customers voted on the one they preferred. More than 1 million people voted for Sriracha, which will launch next week.

“There were so many votes, it crashed the site,” Neary said. “Sriracha won by a landslide.”

Correction: Oct. 20, 2017  An earlier version of this story misstated Auntie Anne's headquarters location and the timing of its "Shoptoberfest" promotion. The story has been updated. 

Contact Jonathan Maze at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @jonathanmaze

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