How the Burton family has helped an all-American brand find its feet on British shores
Being in the eye of a bitter recession might not strike most people as the ideal time to buy a master franchise but economic woes didn’t put off Robert Burton and his son Max. Having flexed his franchising muscles as master franchisee for Thrifty Car Rental for 16 years, Robert was on the lookout for his next opportunity. And even though neither he nor his son had a background in food, there was something about Auntie Anne’s, the quick-service chain selling sweet and savoury pretzels, that captured their imagination. “We just fell in love with the taste – it was like nothing we’d tried before,” recalls Max Burton.
Having begun life as a snack sold by Anne Beiler at a farmers’ market in Pennsylvania in the 1980s, Auntie Anne’s origin story epitomises the classic American dream. That humble market stall soon grew into a thriving business and, eventually, became a global franchise. But while the Burtons were impressed with its potential, the uncertain economic climate meant that scoping out the market and doing their due diligence was vital. “After doing our research, we were fairly confident that while retail in general might suffer during the recession, food would be as buoyant as ever,” says Burton. “After all, everyone needs to eat and everyone likes a treat.” Satisfied the opportunity was a sound one, Robert secured the master franchise rights for the UK and Ireland, bringing his son on as director of properties and franchisees.
At that point, there were already four Auntie Anne’s locations in the UK, which were managed by a national team and owned centrally in the US. But the concept hadn’t really taken off yet: Auntie Anne’s wasn’t a well-known brand in the UK and Brits didn’t have much of a pretzel-eating culture at the time. “There was a bit of what we call pretzel prejudice going on: people associated them with those hard, crunchy things you’re handed on aeroplanes,” says Burton. “We needed to introduce the British consumer to our kind.” To get the word out about this foreign concept of eating soft, freshly baked pretzels, the franchise let the product do the talking by ensuring as many people as possible could taste it for themselves. “You can spend your money on flashy TV ads or splash your brand all over the side of a bus but sampling is what helped bring in footfall for us early on,” says Burton.
But while taste tests were all well and good, the Burtons had to ask some tough questions and get to the bottom of why, after five years of being in the UK, Auntie Anne’s hadn’t been able to take on more than one franchisee. “We could see that the American head-office team had struggled when it came to keeping costs down and developing a local supply chain – all the ingredients came from the US,” Burton says. “They just never grasped the opportunity.” So for the past ten years, the British master franchisees have slowly but surely been dismantling the complex supply chain, reducing costs and switching to UK suppliers. And today everything but one variety of sugar comes from Britain. “Developing a local supply chain’s been our biggest challenge,” says Burton. “It’s only really been in the last six years that we’ve had the economies of scale needed to make the changes we wanted and simplify everything.”
With these changes under way, Auntie Anne’s was growing steadily and bringing on new franchisees at an average rate of about two to four a year. Then, in 2014, Robert Burton realised the time had come for him to take a step back and hand the reins over to his son. Over the course of the following year, there was a gradual change of leadership as Max became the company’s managing director. “Taking over from my father was a bit stressful – especially since I’d just had a baby – but the actual transition itself was relatively straightforward,” Burton recalls. “We’d agreed on most things and I’d been involved in the direction of the company from the get-go so, to a large extent, it was business as usual.”
One of the first projects Burton saw through as managing director was the development of a new points-based app that allows people to clock up points digitally and redeem them in-store. “The beauty of the app is that it’s useful for our customers while helping us capture really good data about people’s purchasing habits,” Burton explains. “For example, we learned that there’s no point doing a ‘buy two get one free’ deal if our customers don’t really want three pretzels in the first place.” Since the app’s launch, Auntie Anne’s has built up a more sophisticated customer profile and is serving up tailored offers based on what people want, enabling it to win repeat business. “Customer loyalty is key and that’s what so many food businesses are chasing,” says Burton.
The app was just one part of the franchise’s attempt to ramp up its marketing initiatives as the network grew. “Because we had such a small team at the start, we never had a marketing roadmap for how we’d develop the brand, which meant that every store had its own local plan,” says Burton. “But that’s changed.” He’s clearly making up for lost time: on top of the app-development project, Burton’s brought a marketing manager on board and the franchise is investing heavily in existing social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook while exploring the possibility of creating a community on Snapchat and Instagram. “Investing in social media makes sense from a revenue-generating perspective but it also builds our brand profile and helps our customers get to know our personality, which is so important.”
And as Auntie Anne’s visibility in the UK increases, Burton is conscious about striking the balance between localising the brand and respecting its all-American roots. “While we don’t wave an American flag over our stores, we don’t shy away from the fact that the brand hails from the US either,” he says. So when head office developed a new product featuring chocolate-chip-studded cream cheese – which has proved popular in America – Burton deemed it unsuitable for more conservative British tastes. But at the same time, the franchise is more than happy to include American lingo in its marketing collateral. “US franchises like McDonald’s and Subway have gone down well here when introduced properly, so we by no means Anglicise our content for the UK.”
All this has helped Auntie Anne’s grow its network from just one franchisee to 31. And Burton’s not stopping there. “I want to have 40 franchisees signed up by the end of the year,” he says. “The goal is to see an Auntie Anne’s franchise in 120 locations across the country, whether they be shopping centres, train stations, airports or high streets.” And now that it’s fully embraced marketing and technology, these ambitious plans don’t seem at all out of reach.