Dan DiZio got his start in the pretzel business at the age of 11, when a neighbor by the name of Steve Nuel recruited him to help sell bags of fresh pretzels to drivers of cars stopped at red lights along Roosevelt Boulevard in northeast Philadelphia. Back then, there were just ten pretzel-making machines in the city of Philadelphia, with the bakers working all night and selling the fresh pretzels to vendors, convenience stores, schools and office workers before closing their factories each morning.
After graduating from East Stroudsburg University, DiZio briefly worked as a stockbroker before he and his college roommate, Len Lehman, returned to the pretzel business in 1998, when they purchased a 1920s pretzel-making machine for $11,500 and rented a space in the Mayfair area of Philadelphia. No strangers to entrepreneurship — in college, the pair ran a “party house,” charging $5 a head and hiring a cleaning crew to come in in the morning — they initially planned on baking at night and closing in the morning, like traditional bakers. But when the smell of freshly baked pretzels wafting through the neighborhood had customers lining up at the door, they realized they were onto something.
For the first year of Philly Pretzel Factory, DiZio and Lehman worked 18 hour days, sleeping atop the 100-pound sacks of flour they’d purchased at Sam’s Club. Today, the company has 136 locations in eight states, boasts sales of over $50 million, is listed among the top franchises in Entrepreneur Magazine and Franchise Market Magazine, and their offerings have consistently won local “Best Pretzel” contests. As the company’s CEO, DiZio is the recipient of the Excellence in Franchising award from Smart CEO magazine, and he was a finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.
What are your fondest memories of your time at East Stroudsburg University?
Intramural sports! Hanging at the quad! Long lunches in the cafeteria with some great people!
What initially inspired you to become a stockbroker, and what ultimately made you want to leave the business?
When I was younger, my stepfather took to me to his friend’s house and he had a $1 million bonus check framed. At that moment, I loved the concept of being a stockbroker. The reason I left was in my childhood, selling pretzels on the corner in Philly, I was used to looking at my day’s sales and then starting again fresh tomorrow without risk of going backwards. I realized that I missed the daily sales business model.
What would you say was the key to Philly Pretzel Factory’s early success?
A hard work ethic combined with producing a superior soft pretzel.
What factors do you use to determine which markets would be right for a Philly Pretzel Factory franchise?
The ability to have a good work ethic, be the face of the store in your area. There are some other qualifications, but it really comes down to the person. Are they passionate about Philly Pretzel Factory?
What methods of marketing Philly Pretzel Factory have you had the most success with?
Social media has been very successful in the past couple of years for us. We instituted a brand page, but also gave the ability for each franchisee to have a local presence to engage with customers on the local level. What we learned is exactly how passionate our customers are for our product and for our brand. We’ve had some great viral moments with the “Tebow” pretzel as well as other great creative ideas from our franchisees.
How did the opportunity to appear on Undercover Boss come about? Were you at all fearful that the show wouldn’t portray you or your business in the best light?
It came about from our PR agency, No Limit Agency in Chicago. I was very, very scared of how it would portray the business! When you are a franchise company, you have to be mindful of all of your franchisees that have invested a lot of their own money in the brand. I was nervous about embarrassing the brand. It turned out to be a very positive experience for the brand and myself.
Are there any other business owners or CEOs that you particularly admire?
I have a lot of admiration for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. I gravitate towards owners/CEOs that started their own brand.
What’s the best meal you’ve had recently?
My mom’s house about a month ago. She made a great roast that night, I had two full plates! I even asked if I could take all of the leftovers.
Do you believe Chip Kelly will win a Super Bowl as the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles?
Yes, but not this year!
If you had to offer one piece of advice to your 18-year-old self, what would it be?
That’s an interesting question. I feel as if I am very fortunate of where I am at in life right now. I would say to stay ahead of potential pitfalls.