"From early on, our vision was to be the Ben & Jerry’s of the pretzel category."
Bill Phelps, cofounder & CEO of Wetzel’s Pretzels.
We had a family business in pet products; my dad had invented the rawhide dog treats. I orchestrated the sale in 1990 to Nestlé, and then I moved out to Nestlé, where I just happened to work with a guy by the name of Rick Wetzel. While on a business trip to Seattle, we walked into a pretzel store, and it was everything the guest was looking for. It was fresh, hand-rolled, delicious, and low-calorie. That night, we walked into the bar, grabbed a napkin, and wrote a business plan.
I tell people Rick and I were considered the two dumbest guys that ever worked at Wetzel’s, because we left these great marketing jobs to work in the back of a pretzel store.
From early on, our vision was to be the Ben & Jerry’s of the pretzel category. We didn’t have any experience in franchising or the restaurant business. As Rick said, “We’re making it up as we go.” We really relied on great product innovation, which was from our Nestlé backgrounds and business analysis, and that’s part of the marketing discipline. I had thought franchising would be a real challenge, like herding cats. The biggest surprise over the years is the degree to which I learned the business from my franchisees. We were constantly improving the model by watching what the best franchisees did—that’s how we built the business.
Wetzel’s has a lot of white space. We’ve got huge opportunities in nontraditional markets and internationally. The brand has kind of flown under the radar for years, and now it’s at a point where we have this incredible awareness out there.
Rick Wetzel is a serial entrepreneur. He came to me five years ago with this idea for Blaze Pizza. I looked at it once and instantly said I’m in, and I became the No. 2 investor in Blaze. It’s been a grand-slam homerun. I love Wetzel’s; I say it’s my third child. Rick and I made the first Wetzel’s pretzels in my kitchen 24 years ago. You can’t ever get that out of your blood, but I love looking at new concepts. I love talking to entrepreneurs and partnering with them; that’s all very exciting.
What was your first job
I was a camp counselor and tennis teacher.
What’s your favorite menu item at Wetzel’s?
The Dog Bites; they’re just phenomenal.
What’s your favorite type of food outside Wetzel’s?
No question, my go-to cuisine is sushi. You’re not supposed to eat it five days a week, but I could.
Who has inspired you as a leader?
I’m on the board of Blaze Pizza with Greg Dollarhyde, who’s one of the great entrepreneurs in the fast-food industry. He did Baja Fresh, Veggie Grill, and Zoë’s Kitchen. I always listen to him.
What are some of your interests outside of the business?
I try to get out and play golf at least once or twice a week. And traveling with my family; I have a grandson and
What’s the best piece of advice you think quick-service executives should hear?
Listen to the operators. You never know where the next great idea is coming from. They are closer to the business, they know it better than you know it, and you have to listen to them and follow their advice.