‘Til We Meet Again gets its first franchisee

UPDATED — Two years after opening ’Til We Meet Again, the custom casket store in Towne West Square, the Willow Group has its first franchisee.

The franchisee is opening a ‘Til We Meet Again in the Glenbrook Square Mall in Fort Wayne, Ind., next month.

Several more likely will follow in short order. That’s even though Willow Group partners Nathan Smith and Traci Smith-Cone never planned to franchise.

“We said, ‘Absolutely not. We’re going to do this on our own,’” Smith-Cone says.

What changed?

“The YouTube video,” she says.

There have been a few videos about the store, one of which has been viewed almost 124,000 times on YouTube. Calls from around the country started coming from people who wanted to open similar shops. Then a January story in Entrepreneur piqued even more interest.

“We’ve been flooded with inquiries,” Smith says.

“My limited knowledge about franchising was we would lose control of those businesses,” Smith-Cone says. “For two type-A personalities to do that, that was very tough.”

They realized they didn’t have much choice, Smith says.

“Once it got out there, to prevent anyone else from doing what we were doing, we had to move quickly,” he says. To secure exclusive deals with manufacturers, who create all kinds of unique caskets and urns, they needed to open more stores than they could afford to do on their own.

“Our fear was more of other people starting their own and creating competition for what we wanted to do,” Smith says. “Before we didn’t have that buying power.”

Now they do, but it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s definitely been a learning process,” Smith-Cone says.

“We’re still learning,” Smith says.

“It’s that overwhelming,” Smith-Cone says.

In addition to legal help – it took six months to craft a franchise disclosure document – they’ve had help from several advisers as well. That includes Pizza Hut co-founder Dan Carney and Dick Hassur, who was the first Pizza Hut franchisee and at one time had 150 of the restaurants.

“Dan has been very good at taking an overly complicated process and simplifying the process a little from when they did it,” Smith-Cone says. “He’s definitely helped.”

Smith says he has files on 65 different groups that may want a franchise. He says they’re close to deals with a group that wants franchise rights for all of Texas and another group that wants the Phoenix market.

They anticipate about five franchise deals this year.

“It’s an amazing responsibility,” Smith-Cone says. “I feel responsible for their investment as much as I feel responsible for my baby, which is this store.”

The franchise process means Smith-Cone and Smith won’t be opening another store of their own just yet.

“We have more business at this point than we can handle,” Smith says. “It has been amazing.”