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.