Wetzel’s Pretzels has named Jennifer Schuler, brand president since Oct. 2017, as the company’s new CEO, replacing co-founder Bill Phelps, who is stepping down after 25 years.
Schuler, who assumed the role Jan. 1, is only the second CEO in the Pasadena, Calif.-based pretzel chain’s history.
Phelps, who founded the chain in 1994 with Rick Wetzel, told franchisees in the fall about his plans to step down. He remains a large investor and will continue to have an active role in the company as brand ambassador and a board member, the company told Nation’s Restaurant News.
The company did not provide details about plans for the president role vacated by Schuler.
The transition comes as Schuler, who joined the company in 2014 as chief marketing officer and became president in Oct. 2017, has become a crucial player in the brand’s positioning.
In an exclusive interview with NRN, Schuler said she plans to add about 25 to 30 new units in 2019 with a focus on premium shopping center locations and non-traditional venues such airports and stadiums.
Still, she said the chain is not backing away from its mall-based roots.
“We continue to believe in malls, and will grow in malls,” Schuler said. “As people talk about malls dying, we see that as oversimplification.”
Over the past year as president, Schuler has led initiatives to add or remodel units in “A” location malls. She said those malls tend to perform better as they rely more heavily on restaurant and entertainment tenants, which drives foot traffic.
In 2017, the chain introduced a sleek prototype concept at the remodeled Westfield Garden State Plaza in New Jersey. Over the course of 2018, the chain introduced the bolder design to about 40 new and existing stores including a remodeled store in Downtown Disney.
The company closed the tourist location for nearly six months as it underwent a massive makeover at the Anaheim, Calif. shopping center, which is adjacent to the entrance of Disneyland.
The California-inspired redesign features large-scale murals capturing scenes from Southern California, new tile work, custom made “pretzel” door handles and an enhanced exhibition counter showcasing the handmade pretzel-making process.
The location offers a glimpse of where the brand is headed: Schuler said the Disney location’s contemporary and whimsical look is “where we need to go.”
“Staying true to the fun side of the brand, that’s so clear in the Disney store,” she added.
As for menu innovation, Schuler said to expect a few new products in 2019 that focus on snacking and fresh food trends. She declined to name specific food products but did reveal plans to introduce a new frozen lemonade beverage this summer.
The drink will be topped with fresh cherry purée and contain boba-style cherry balls that burst with juice.
The 340-unit chain is owned by Dallas-based private-equity firm CenterOak Partners. Except for a few company stores, including two Walt Disney property locations, most of the chain is franchised.
Schuler, who owns two franchise units in the Mall of America in Minnesota, said the company ended the year with systemwide same-store sales growth of 2.5 percent.
This year the chain will look to add digital ordering options to meet the on-demand movement, Schuler said.
“Even as an impulse business, you can’t ignore the shift to delivery,” she said.
Tests will involve delivery, ghost kitchens, and mobile ordering and pickup. The pickup option, she said, would be “perfect” for mall settings as many customers tend to be retail employees looking for a quick bite to eat on breaks.
As she looks at each initiative, Schuler said each has the same endgame: “How do we bring pretzels to the people?”
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