Auntie Anne's hits the pavement with food trucks
- In addition to its classic mall, airport and travel shops, Auntie Anne's now operates two dozen food trucks in nine cities, including Atlanta, Houston, Nashville and Seattle, according to QSR. The 30-year-old chain has plans to double that number by next year.
- The mobile kitchens, equipped with the same mixers and ovens found in brick-and-mortar Auntie Anne's, require less initial investment and lower overhead, an attractive quality especially for single-unit franchisees, president Heather Neary told QSR.
- Now with more than 1,800 locations, Auntie Anne's also has expanded to standalone shops at 16 universities and plans to promote its catering and delivery business.
To stay competitive as the retail landscape evolves, Auntie Anne's has diversified its business by "taking pretzels to the people." The chain's first food truck hit the streets in 2013, encouraging fans to share sightings with #IFoundThePretzelTruck. Neary told QSR, the trucks have been a frequent guest at weddings, food truck fairs and sporting events, and franchisees appreciate the chance to make their own schedule and maximize their time by finding the most customers, potentially in multiple locations in the same day. Best of all, the trucks act as roving billboards. As Neary told Nation's Restaurant News in 2017, "At the end of the day, we're not going to argue there are less people outside the mall."
Food trucks have long been a staple of the restaurant scene in warm-weather cities like Austin and Los Angeles, and, of course, New York has its famed street carts. In the past decade, they have blossomed in mid-sized cities, appealing to first-time business owners and entrepreneurs seeking an alternative career after the recession. At the same time, smartphones proliferated, making it easier for consumers to find food where and when they wanted — and restaurants the chance to shout it from Twitter and Facebook.
Quick-service restaurants took note, with leading chains such as Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell sending mobile units out on the town and to special events. In one sense, trucks provide on-site catering, as In-N-Out does with its "cookout trailer." They also offer wide-open waters for established chains to build their brand in other ways, especially as customers diverge into delivery and takeout. The food truck industry lacks a clear leader, according to a 2017 IBISWorld Report, with annual revenues nearing $1 billion spread across more than 4,000 businesses for an average of $250,000 per truck.
The move to being mobile actually dovetails with the company's origin story, as founder Anne Beiler sold pretzels and lemonade at a farmers market in Downington, Pennsylvania, before franchising the idea in 1991. Cramped spaces also harken to the chain's typical food court stand at 650 malls across the U.S., which house 1,200 domestic units but might not last.
Last year Credit Suisse estimated that 20% to 25% of America’s 1,200 or so malls will shutter by 2020, with online retail upending the mall's heydey of the '80s and '90s. Despite the loss of some foot traffic, occupancy rates still exceed 90% — a "very, very healthy rate," according to the International Center of Shopping Centers — and Auntie Anne's has been right there with them.
Under the Focus Brands umbrella (currently eyeing an IPO after acquiring Jamba Juice), Auntie Anne's has pursued co-branding opportunities with Cinnabon and Carvel Ice Cream, which has lulled the brand out of the mall and into other retail spaces, particularly in high-traffic urban areas like street-side locations in Times Square and Kissimmee near Disney World.