While pretzel chains have long been synonymous with mall culture, shifting consumer habits, particularly among Gen Z and millennials, have sparked a seismic change in the snack food landscape. With a growing preference for smaller, more frequent eating occasions, snacks are now vying for a larger slice of the consumer pie.

Recognizing this evolving trend, pretzel brands are rethinking their approach, seeking to expand their reach beyond the confines of shopping centers.

“I think sometimes certain categories get put in little boxes, but we feel like people want pretzels on more occasions than just a visit to the mall,” says Hillary Frei, head of marketing for Wetzel’s Pretzels. “That’s why we’re trying to expand the format as much as possible.”

Wetzel’s quest to “bring pretzels to the people” is unfolding in a few ways. The brand is targeting other types of nontraditional venues, like airports and amusement parks. A fleet of food trucks continues to expand alongside units in convenience stores. It even scaled down to fit inside Macy’s and Walmart locations. But the biggest twist came last year when it scaled up and debuted its first storefront model.

The brand opened the doors to its first Twisted by Wetzel’s store in La Habra, California, in May 2023. Frei says it goes beyond the chain’s grab-and-go DNA with a “360-degree experience.”

The 1,200-square-foot design is nearly twice the size of a typical mall location, and in a first for Wetzel’s, it includes in-store seating. An open kitchen showcasing the pretzel-making process and an Insta-friendly wall add an experiential element.

The streetside format serves as an innovation lab with new products that are stuffed, topped, and drizzled, plus a fresh lineup of house-made beverages. Some of those offerings will remain exclusive to the Twisted concept. Some will make their way onto menus across the system.

“We think about Twisted as a product innovation lab,” Frei says. “We can have a lot of fun, push boundaries, push formats, and really figure out where consumer appetites are.”

A second corporate location opened in Surprise, Arizona, last year, followed by a franchised unit in the Los Angeles area in early 2024. No definitive growth targets have been set yet. Frei says Wetzel’s is “still using it more for innovation than for growth.” But she’s bullish on the potential. That’s because the model unlocks additional pathways for growth to allow franchisees the ability to scale faster. And it opens up plenty of new territory, given the company hasn’t gone to the street before.

“Wetzel’s on the street is definitely part of our growth mode, but what it looks like, well, that’s the whole point of Twisted,” she says. “It’s really helping us understand what will work on the street and what we can do in this setting.”

Wetzel’s isn’t the only pretzel brand twisting into new shapes as it pushes beyond nontraditional locations. Take Pretzelmaker as an example. The snack food chain started rolling out its Fresh Twist branding four years ago to fulfill demand for morning and late-night options and increase the portability of the menu for expansion into travel centers, universities, and airports. The menu grew to include breakfast sandwiches and flatbread pizzas made with fresh pretzel dough.

Fresh Twist was designed to cater to smaller footprints and on-the-go customers, creating an opening to jump-start expansion into the drive-thru arena. Pretzelmaker made its first foray into the channel last year with a couple of single-lane sites in Iowa.

“This is a great approach for us to get the consumer to use our brand more often,” says Pretzelmaker president Allison Lauenstein. “It allows them the convenience that they want without having to park their car and go inside to grab their pretzel bites and their lemonade.”

Venturing into the drive-thru changes the dynamic when it comes to driving traffic. Historically, Pretzelmaker has relied on impulse occasions, engaging the senses of a captive audience to spark cravings. Now, it has to become more of a destination.

That’s where menu diversity comes into play. Lauenstein says the brand’s broad menu—encompassing everything from sweet and savory snacks to more substantial mealtime offerings, plus beverage platforms like smoothies and lemonades—lends itself to the drive-thru.

Strong results at the first two stores in Iowa sparked a wave of interest from franchisees. Now, Pretzelmaker is working on a new double-drive thru prototype that maximizes its digital capabilities. The first two in development are expected to open in the back half of 2024.

“We’re looking at how to continue improving the consumer experience, whether it’s in the store or in the drive-thru line,” Lauenstein says. “We’re making sure that we’re constantly evaluating the order time and queuing, that the consumer is served quickly, and the orders are correct. We’re playing around with our app, making sure people know they can order ahead. And we’re going to be testing in-store kiosks for the people that want to get out of their car and come inside.”

Additionally, she sees an opportunity to pair Pretzelmaker with other FAT Brands concepts like Great American Cookies or Marble Slab Creamery in a drive-thru setting down the road. But no plans have been solidified yet.

“Pretzelmaker is not only a profitable business, but it is easier to execute than some of the other brands out there,” Lauenstein says. “So we’re starting to look across the entire portfolio and see where it might make sense to help drive some incremental traffic and sales for our sister brands.”

Fellow pretzel chain Auntie Anne’s made headlines in 2021 when it opened its first drive-thru alongside sister concept Jamba in Wiley, Texas. It already had plenty of co-branded locations with fellow GoTo Foods concepts Cinnabon and Carvel, but that store marked a major milestone in its journey outside of the food courts it has historically occupied.

Three years after the Wiley store went online, GoTo Foods has opened over 20 co-branded Auntie Anne’s and Jamba locations, roughly half of which feature a drive-thru.

“We’ve been working to be more accessible by going streetside,” says chief brand officer Julie Younglove-Webb. “The big thing that really affords us is convenience, which just allows for greater frequency.”

The brand is looking to continue strengthening that convenience piece by growing its loyalty membership base. It’s leaning into technology and using machine learning to generate personalized offers based on customer behavior.

Like Wetzel’s and Pretzelmaker, Auntie Anne’s is finding the move out of the mall opens up new opportunities for product innovation, especially more satiating and substantial items, like the Pepperoni Bites it added earlier this year.

“The opportunity for meal replacement is definitely strengthened with the streetside locations,” Younglove-Webb says. “When you think about pairing things like Pepperoni Bites and Mini Pretzel Dogs with a Jamba smoothie, it really becomes a nice offering.”

The partnership with Jamba is particularly complementary because Auntie Anne’s caters to dayparts from noon on, while Jamba specializes more in the morning crowd, she adds. For franchisees, that offers a labor-efficient means of attracting a larger customer base with a broader menu.

Plus, operating two brands under the same roof enables franchisees to capitalize on bigger and better pieces of property.

“By pairing the two, you end up with much stronger real estate than either brand alone,” Younglove-Webb says. “So, we’re still absolutely ecstatic and very excited about that opportunity.”

Fast Casual, Fast Food, Menu Innovations, Story, Auntie Anne's, Pretzelmaker, Wetzel's Pretzels