American company Wetzel’s Pretzels, a leader in super-premium, hot and fresh pretzels, opened the company’s first Asia location, at the Ario Kameari Mall in Katsushika Ward, Tokyo, in April. The location has quickly become Wetzel’s Pretzels’ highest-volume store in the world.
To launch the brand in Japan, the company partnered with master franchisee Takafumi Kawasaki, a veteran in the Japanese-based franchise sector.
Bill Phelps and Rick Wetzel launched Wetzel’s Pretzels in 1994. Still leading the company today, they are the only founders of a retail snack food chain that do so. Phelps says great flavor, value and products know no borders. He sees tremendous opportunity for growth in Asia.
How important is Japan in Wetzel’s Pretzels’ global expansion plans?
Japan is absolutely critical to our global expansion plans. It’s one of the most sophisticated markets in the world, and the culture openly welcomes U.S. concepts. We need to be successful here.
Where else are you looking to open in Asia besides Japan?
We are already in India, and as we continue our goal of growing Wetzel’s internationally, we will be expanding fairly aggressively, looking into Malaysia and Singapore.
How has the first store in Japan performed so far?
We’re thrilled with the success of the first Wetzel’s Pretzels in Japan, located at the Ario Kameari Mall in Tokyo. It has exceeded all expectations and has put us on a fast track to expansion in the region. It is the highest volume mall store we have in the world.
What are your expansion plans for Japan?
By April of 2013, we will have 10 Wetzel’s Pretzels locations in Japan, and we anticipate upward of 15 stores by the end of 2013.
How did you research the market in Japan before deciding to open here?
We always believed Japan would be the best international market for Wetzel’s, as Japan has a strong presence of U.S. concepts performing well in the market. We also saw how the Japanese population embraced the products and brand in Southern California. Overall, we were very optimistic about going into the Japan market.
Are the products sold in Japan exactly the same as those sold in the U.S. or were some changes necessary to suit Japanese consumers’ tastes? For example, are they smaller?
In the United States, our pretzels are 6 ounces. To accommodate for regional food tastes, we’ve gone to a 4-ounce pretzel locally. The menu in Japan is the same as it is in the U.S., although we’re testing two new pretzel flavors here—curry and ginger.
How often do you visit overseas markets?
I, along with our team, visit Asia every six months. Takafumi Kawasaki, our master franchisee, is local and has four people working at his headquarters. We also have approximately 30 team members working at the Wetzel’s Pretzels in the Ario Kameari Mall.
In choosing a master franchise developer for a region, what do you look for in a possible partner?
The first attribute we look for in a possible franchisee is a track record of success developing other franchise concepts. It’s not critical that a franchisee has experience in the food sector, but they need to have had success with other franchise concepts. This is something Kawasaki understands and he has been successful locally with other franchise concepts.
The master franchise developer also must understand the importance of having successful franchisees, and the critical importance of the locations of those stores. Lastly, they have to have the capital to make the investment.
What is your management style like? In what areas of the business are you hands-on and where do you delegate?
Wetzel’s is a very lean organization. At our corporate office we have five executives, three middle managers and a handful of clerical team members. We run a very tight ship.
Both Rick Wetzel (co-founder) and I are very involved in the day-to-day operation of Wetzel’s Pretzels. I believe it’s a competitive advantage to have the founders of a company still at the helm. It’s the company we’ve overseen since 1994 and we enjoy bringing Wetzel’s to fans in the United States, Japan and other locations.
How many pretzels do you eat a week?
I typically eat two pretzels a week. My favorites are the Jalapeno Pretzel and the Wetzel Cheese Dog.