Jennifer Schuler was named chief marketing officer at the 300-unit Wetzel’s Pretzels three years ago, but has taken on a lot more responsibility over the past two years, like construction, design, franchise development and real estate.
This week, she was given a new title: Company president. Schuler will be charged with helping the Pasadena, Calif.-based pretzel chain continue its expansion inside the nation’s malls and in nontraditional formats.
“I’m a huge fan of the product,” Schuler said in an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News.
“As a marketer, if you have a natural passion for the product, it makes the marketing part a lot easier.”
She also said company founders Rick Wetzel and Bill Phelps “have been very smart in their growth of the company, and they both have marketing backgrounds with a strong focus on brands.”
Schuler for years worked in the consumer products category at Minneapolis-based General Mills. For a time she worked with the company’s Yoplait brand, helping to market it to foodservice companies. It was during that period Schuler developed her appreciation for the food business.
She left General Mills and worked for two different companies, but said she had always appreciated the food business. So Schuler jumped at the chance to get back in when she was offered the CMO job at Wetzel’s three years ago.
“I’ve always wanted to find my way back there,” she said. “Food is where my passion lies, and I found my way to Wetzel’s.”
Wetzel and Phelps were marketers with Nestle when they opened the first store in 1994. The chain started franchising in 1996 and expanded quickly.
Schuler said the chain is currently focused on making franchisees more profitable, which can help the chain expand — profitable operators are more likely to build new units, after all.
She said the brand is bigger than the chain’s footprint in part because of its home in Pasadena. The chain has been mentioned on Jimmy Kimmel. It has stores at Disneyland and Disneyworld.
Wetzel’s has worked to take more advantage of its reputation. Last month, reality star Kim Kardashian West tweeted that she was annoyed that her brother Rob didn’t bring him back Wetzel’s Pretzels from the mall.
Wetzel’s tweeted back, with an offer for Kardashian as well as her fans.
“This brand is much like a bigger national brand with entertainment value,” Schuler said.
But it’s still a relatively small chain, with a “lot of white space” for development. Schuler believes the company can expand in many of the nation’s malls.
While mall traffic has been in decline in recent years, Schuler said the chain has continued to perform. Its same-store sales have increased for seven straight years.
She also believes that malls are evolving to offset decreased retail traffic. “Malls are shifting to less of a retail destination and more of an entertainment destination,” she said.
“They’re reemerging with bowling alleys, a Cheesecake Factory, maybe a movie theater or a Sky Zone. They’re more entertainment.”
And entertainment still yields hungry customers who want pretzels.
“We’ve been doing quite well,” she said. “You can buy your jeans online, but you can’t buy your pretzels online.”
Still, it’s not like the company isn’t focusing on other areas, either. Wetzels has a deal to expand inside of Walmarts, for instance — 10 of the 30 locations the company will open this year are in the retail giant’s locations.
The company is also working on non-traditional locations. Last year the chain opened a 40 square foot cart on the Santa Monica Pier. It had a limited menu and pretzels were made in a commissary.
“That thing has been killing it,” Schuler said. The company has since opened a second cart and believes that could become an expansion vehicle in the future. “Format flexibility is required to make nontraditional spaces work,” she said.
Wetzel’s has other advantages, she said, that make it a desirable business. For one thing, the food cost percentage to make its pretzels is low compared with other restaurants, which makes it more profitable.
And consumers like to snack. “That’s squarely what consumers are looking for today,” Schuler said. “It’s an impulse snack business, it’s not a planned purchase. It’s not a meal they’re deciding about.
“We tend to live in a category that’s in a way recession proof. People still like to treat themselves to a pretzel.”
Contact Jonathan Maze at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter at @jonathanmaze