Ben's Soft Pretzels works to maintain small-town identity through big-time expansion

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By: J.C. Lee
jclee@flavor574.com

When Ben and Elizabeth Miller took over the pretzel stand at the South Bend Farmers Market in 2004, they didn’t know how to bake a pretzel. They hadn’t even tasted one before then.

“When we sat down to do the deal (with the previous owners), time to exchange the money and stuff, they said, ‘Well, we can’t let the recipe and the name go with the business,’” Ben said.

But the Millers are bakers, and Elizabeth used what she knew from making bread and pastries to create her own soft pretzel.

It’s her recipe that’s now being used in more than 30 Ben’s Soft Pretzels stores in Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida. And by the end of the year, 50 more stores will serve her pretzels in those states as well as Minnesota and Ohio.

But, as Ben’s Soft Pretzels grows larger, its founders still want to get the little things right.

TRAINED TO TWIST

The business recently unveiled “Ben’s Soft Pretzels University” at an open house Thursday, March 10, at the back of its store at 1202 W. Pike St. in Goshen.

It’s a 2,500-square-foot training facility with its own model storefront and kitchen, from the counter where the dough is rolled and twisted to the ovens which bake the pretzels to a golden brown.

Part of being in the Ben’s Soft Pretzels family is being able to call another franchisee … for help or to brainstorm new ideas.

The training facility will guide new franchisees as they learn the ins and outs of the pretzel business. They’ll learn how to build their store for success and get a taste of its day-to-day operations, which cofounder and president Scott Jones referred to as “reality training.”

“And that’s really all about the reality of having a business,” he said. “What it entails in relation to big lines of people, making a product, selling a product, learning the P.O.S. system — the point-of-sale system — how the mixer works, how the oven works.”

And all this preparation goes towards getting customers to taste their first Ben’s Soft Pretzel — the one Elizabeth Miller made from scratch more than a decade ago. That first pretzel’s job, Jones said, is to sell the rest of them.

AMISH-INSPIRED

You can still find the original Ben’s Soft Pretzels store at the South Bend Farmers Market. It’s one of the only booths with a vent.

“We were actually so bad at (making pretzels), burning them and stuff that they made us put in a vent above our oven to actually draw out the smoke,” Ben said. He added that the pretzels looked more like donuts than pretzels those first few days.

But since the booth first opened in 2004, the Shipshewana bakers continued to make little changes to their pretzel recipe. By 2008, the couple were selling their knots at two other locations: the Shipshewana Auction & Flea Market and Yoder’s Red Barn Shoppes.

And the couple wanted to continue expanding, but there was one roadblock.

They were Amish.

“I go there to just be a light, be a ministry to my employees … I guess we found community in that.”

Their faith didn’t allow the Millers to use a car, so they had to hire a driver to get them and their baked goods from Shipshewana to South Bend. Their Amish faith also meant that the bakers couldn’t have a cell phone or a computer, and their use of the internet was limited to the local public library.

That’s where local business partners Scott Jones and Brian Krider come in. They started wholesaling the Miller’s baked goods, from their breads to their pastries — but it was those pretzels that really took off.

So Brian came up with the idea to make a business around the knots themselves, Scott said.

Ben, Scott and Brian became partners and, in 2008, opened up their first store at Concord Mall in Elkhart.

They decided to keep their branding true to the Millers’ Amish roots. The bearded man holding the ends of the knot on the Ben’s Soft Pretzel logo on every storefront sign is a likeness of Ben Miller, Scott said.

“Ben is a third or fourth-generation baker,” Scott said. “I mean, baking is in his blood.”

A FAMILY BUSINESS

Five years ago, Ben and Elizabeth Miller left the Amish community. They just didn’t see eye-to-eye with the religious beliefs.

The Amish gets some things right, Ben said. They are hardworking, have good family values and take care of their elderly. But, through their readings of the scriptures, the Millers started to see their faith in a different light.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, because your family’s there. My family’s still there,” he said. “My wife’s dad was a bishop, so it was really hard.”

Their families don’t keep in touch with them any longer.

The Millers are now non-denominational Christians but, ever since the couple left the Amish faith, they’ve chosen to make their business their family.

“I go there to just be a light,” Ben said. “Be a ministry to my employees that work under me, and I guess we found community in that.”

As Ben’s Soft Pretzels continues to grow this year, the Millers’ community grows as well.

When it comes to choosing franchisees, partner Scott Jones said it’s never been about the money.

Part of being in the Ben’s Soft Pretzels family is being able to call another franchisee, whether they’re in Florida or Michigan, for help or to brainstorm new ideas. 

They have to be persistent, and they also have to really believe in the pretzel. Scott said the Ben’s Soft Pretzel family knows they have a good product – one which will bring customers back for more – but it’s the franchisees who have to get it into customers’ hands first.

“Our favorite customer is the person who says, ‘I don’t like pretzels,’” he said. “Because once they try our pretzel, they may not like pretzels but they love Ben’s Soft Pretzels.”

Where partners Brian and Scott focus on marketing and sales respectively, the Millers still keep to what they do best — baking. The couple and their children make the secret pretzel mix that’s sent out to all Ben’s Soft Pretzels franchise stores to be combined with flour and water.

And from the first burnt batch of pretzels in the South Bend Farmer’s Market to the ones that will tempt customers in six states by the end of this year, Ben said they have God to thank for it all.

“It blows me away that I’m involved with a company that’s opening 50 stores this year,” he said. “It’s very humbling to even be a part of that.”

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