‘Til We Meet Again further franchises and encounters its first stumbling block

WICHITA — Willow Group continues to ink franchise deals for more ’Til We Meet Again stores, but the Wichita company has also experienced its first setback.

The chain’s first franchisee was to open a custom casket store in Glenbrook Square in Fort Wayne, Ind., in May, but Willow Group’s Nathan Smith says mall management changed its mind without giving him or local media a reason.

“Glenbrook Square officials likely sealed a casket company’s fate in Fort Wayne,” read the lead of a Journal Gazette story, which was one of several stories about the issue that appeared in local media outlets.

“It was a mess,” says Smith, who is partners in Willow Group with Traci Smith-Cone.

“Honestly, it took us by surprise,” Smith says. “We do everything we can in the beginning to make sure everything is secured.”

He says the mall took five months to approve the contract.

No one with Glenbrook could be reached for comment.

Smith says the franchisee lost about $100,000 on remodeling and other expenses when told she’d have to vacate the mall five days before opening. He says the store had a contract, but there was a clause that the mall could ask the store to leave at any time.

“We definitely worked quickly with the franchisee to minimize even more loss of funds,” Smith says. “At the time, it was a scramble.”

The store is now opening Sept. 14 in a Fort Wayne strip center next to a Starbucks.

Another franchisee is opening a ’Til We Meet Again in Southridge Mall in Greendale, Wis., which is near Milwaukee, on Sept. 8.

Smith says 20 franchises have been sold so far. There’s also a corporate store at Towne West Square. Two more franchise stores, in Dallas and Phoenix, will be open by the end of October. Smith says there also is a letter of intent from a group in Atlanta, and he’s working with a group in Los Angeles.

Smith says he’s not changing much about his approach to working with malls.

He says some groups, such as Simon Malls, which owns Towne West and Towne East Square, are great to deal with.

As for some others, he says, “It’s too bad for them because it’s their loss.”

He says the store drives a lot of traffic to Towne West.

Smith says some people don’t get the store’s concept until they see it, but he’s going to make sure all malls understand it before they sign contracts so he won’t encounter a Glenbrook situation again.

“We won’t let that happen twice.”