Twists and Turns: Doctor Becomes Brand Ambassador for Wetzel's Pretzels
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Twists and Turns: Doctor Becomes Brand Ambassador for Wetzel's Pretzels

Twists and Turns: Doctor Becomes Brand Ambassador for Wetzel's Pretzels

Steve Leibsohn’s transition from delivering babies as a busy OB-GYN to an award-winning, pretzel-slinging entrepreneur may seem like a wild career move, but the twists and turns are the point.

“I truly feel you are always in the exact place you are supposed to be at any given time,” says Leibsohn, who oversees a portfolio of more than 35 Wetzel’s Pretzels in Arizona.

Leibsohn was a practicing physician when he first experienced a Wetzel’s pretzel while on vacation in San Diego. It was a tasty memory, so when he spotted the franchise’s classified ad in the Arizona Republic in 1998, he answered the call to introduce the iconic snack brand to the Grand Canyon State. Leibsohn signed on for a three-pack on the spot.

“I worked at Wetzel’s on the weekends to relax,” Leibsohn recalls. “I loved the simplicity of the operation, which allowed me to focus on the customer.”

Sidelined by a second back surgery in 2001, Leibsohn retired from medicine and went back to school to earn an MBA. Slowly and successfully, the newly minted entrepreneur expanded his pretzel empire, adding one to two stores a year across Wetzel’s flexible formats over the next 25 years.

Leibsohn gets energized by finding venues and opening new stores, and he was most recently tapped to expand the brand’s latest innovative take on snacking, Twisted by Wetzel’s. The 2023 opening of the new streetside concept in Surprise, Arizona, is Wetzel’s second location and the first unit operated by a franchisee. It’s a fitting move for the brand ambassador, who was recognized as the IFA’s 2022 Franchisee of the Year.

“I believe you cannot be an absentee owner and must give the business 110% of your effort,” Leibsohn says. “If you decide to focus your attention on other business endeavors, then you are leaving a significant amount on the table.”

Known for being a caring leader and committed philanthropist with a big heart, Leibsohn has loved being a one-brand man, who made pretzels popular in his home state. “In Arizona, when I tell people I own and operate the Wetzel’s Pretzels, the kids treat you like a rock star,” he says.

Name: Steven Leibsohn
Title: Owner
No of Units: 35 Wetzel’s Pretzels, 2 food trucks, 1 Twisted by Wetzel’s
Age: 65
Family: Wife; 1 son; 1 daughter
Years in franchising: 25
Years in current position: 25

PERSONAL

First job: Obstetrician/gynecologist.

Formative influence/events: I obtained an MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management in 2003.

Key accomplishments: Retention of managers and employees. Many of my present managers have been in the organization for more than 20 years. In fact, my original manager at my first franchise in Scottsdale Fashion Square is still working at that location.

Awards: Franchisee of the Year 2022, International Franchise Association; Multi-Unit Franchisee of the Year, Wetzel’s Pretzels; Trailblazer of the Year, Wetzel’s Pretzels.

Biggest current challenge: Labor and food costs.

Next big goal: Giving back to the community on a weekly basis. My desire is to take the food truck out and hand out free pretzels at various charitable organizations.

Best business decision: I committed to opening up three Wetzel’s Pretzels in 1998 after reading an ad looking for the first Wetzel’s Pretzels franchisee in Arizona.

Hardest lesson learned: I trust you until you give me a reason not to trust.

Work week: The day is always full of surprises. You have to be able to roll with the punches as every day is different. Be flexible. In our business, the weekends determine our overall success.

Exercise/workout: I have a personal trainer two times a week.

Best advice you ever got: Your gut never lies. Collect all the data you need, but at the end of the day, use your instincts to make important decisions.

What’s your passion in business? Creating leaders within my organization. I love to promote from within and see the growth of each individual, maximizing their potential. My director of operations started with me when she was 16.

How do you balance life and work? I believe that they are connected. If you are happy with your life, you will be more productive at work. When both are in sync, you will have inner peace.

Guilty pleasure: Eating Cinnamon Bitz. They are addicting.

Favorite book: Good to Great by Jim Collins.

Favorite Movie: “Toy Story.” I love nurturing the inner child filled with openness, joy, and curiosity.

What do most people not know about you? I love to play in Texas hold ‘em poker tournaments.

Pet peeve: Not telling the truth.

What did you want to be when you grew up? A physician.

Person you’d most like to have lunch with: Charlie Munger. I love his quote, “I think that a life properly lived is just learn, learn, learn all the time.”

MANAGEMENT

Business philosophy: Do not be greedy. Take care of your employees.

Management method or style: Relationship oriented. I focus on motivating and developing people.

Greatest challenge: Labor and food costs.

How do others describe you? A caring leader with a huge heart.

Have you ever been in a mentor-mentee relationship? What did you learn? I recently hired a corporate executive to lead my company. To make it work, I needed to deprogram his corporate brain. The corporate mindset does not work in a self-owned, medium-sized business. He taught me that we need to implement more written procedures and policies.

One thing you’re looking to do better: Change our bonus system from subjective to a pay-for-performance structure.

How you give your team room to innovate and experiment: We have weekly Zoom meetings to review the past week and look to the future. I believe in open and authentic communication.

How close are you to operations? I feel that operations are the key to your overall success. The minute you stop caring and are not 100% all in, you need to step aside.

What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor? Marketing and supply chain management.

What you need from vendors: Anticipation of our needs.

Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How? I feel that social media is very important along with loyalty apps.

How is social media affecting your business? The more your business is seen on Instagram, the better. It is free advertising.

How do you hire and fire? There is a great app for hiring: Landed App. It is specific to the restaurant industry. It sets up interviews for candidates and uses AI. It has been a game changer for us. Firing is done on a case-to-case basis.

How do you train and retain? We have recently switched our training manuals to the 1Huddle App. Everything can be done on the phone or an iPad. Paper manuals are no longer sitting on the back shelf, collecting dust. Retaining employees is our passion. We love to promote and reward our star employees. The bakers are key in my business.

How do you deal with problem employees? We attempt to understand both sides of the story. We will always have an in-person meeting to explain the situation. A written warning, if warranted, will be given with the hope that the incident was a one-time situation. Clear and open communication, allowing both sides to be heard, is a necessary part of the process. Listen, listen, and listen.

Fastest way into your doghouse: Lie, cheat, or steal.

BOTTOM LINE

Annual revenue: $28 million.

2024 goals: Give back to the community.

Growth meter: How do you measure your growth?: In 2024, we want our revenue to grow 3% to 4%. There are headwinds to the EBITDA with rising rents, labor, and food costs.

Vision meter: I want to continue to grow my food truck and catering business.

Do you have brands in different segments? Why or why not: I prefer simplicity; I want to build on what I know is a proven business model.

How is the economy in your region affecting you, your employees, your customers? Arizona is in a sweet spot as we are a fast-growing state. This directly translates into increased sales.

Are you experiencing economic growth in your markets? Yes. There are a lot of lifestyle centers being constructed, which is a substitute for the mall and a growth opportunity.

How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business? We are basically recession-proof as people will still go to the malls and purchase food. We are an impulse buy as opposed to a destination purchase. We are still a great value.

How do you forecast for your business? I predict sales in 2024 will increase slightly from 2023. There was a definite decrease in sales from 2022. It will be hard to duplicate 2022 since it was our best year ever.

What are the best sources for capital expansion? Self-funding.

What are you doing to take care of your employees? We are a big family. If you authentically care about your employees, your business will be in a great spot. Reward your superstars with monthly bonuses.

How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)? We have been increasing our prices two times a year. Also, the tip feature adds approximately $2 an hour to the paycheck.

What laws and regulations are affecting your business, and how are you dealing with them? The minimum wage keeps increasing. Arizona went up to $14.35 in January. This has a direct effect on increasing the existing employee’s wages. Thus, the prices will continually need to rise to help with the increase in operational costs.

How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees? I believe in monthly bonuses and big Christmas bonuses. I also have an emergency fund for employees. If the employee has a financial hardship, we will assist with their needs by either giving them an extra bonus or giving them a low-interest loan. The key ingredient for success is one word: caring.

Published: March 1st, 2024

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