Dan Carney’s ‘Til We Meet Again franchise opens in Phoenix this weekend

WICHITA — Most business owners like a little publicity for their new businesses, but Dan Carney isn’t most business owners.

The Pizza Hut cofounder and some partners are opening a ’Til We Meet Again franchise in Phoenix this weekend, but Carney would rather not discuss it.

Franchise founder Nathan Smith and his business partner, Traci Smith-Cone, have been consulting with Carney on their business.

“I consult with anybody that’s really interested and calls me and asks for help,” Carney says. “This is what happened with Nathan.”

He says he’s “hopefully helped him form some ideas that have been successful.”

Carney says the two disagree on how much publicity a business should have before it’s proven successful.

An ex-employee of Carney’s wanted to open the Phoenix store, and he agreed to back him.

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‘Til We Meet again obtains license to sell Vatican caskets, urns, grave markers and memorial products

WICHITA — If a business person would like to do business with the Vatican, is it as easy as calling up and asking?

Almost. At least that’s how it seemed to go for Nathan Smith and Traci Smith-Cone of ’Til We Meet Again, the casket store at Towne West Square that’s turning into a national chain.

The day after Thanksgiving, Smith says he and Smith-Cone signed a deal with the Vatican for Vatican-licensed merchandise.

“We are the only source for retail for all Vatican caskets, urns and memorial products throughout the United States,” Smith says. “It’s been something we’ve been working on for quite some time.”

Another company used to have the exclusive license, he says.

“That company that was doing that fell on some hard times and bad management and are no longer in existence,” Smith says.

When he heard that, he says he called the Vatican to inquire about the license.

“Through a lot of negotiations and talks, we thought it brought a lot of value to have that license from the Vatican,” Smith says. “It’s going to be a pretty big license for us.”

The company is in the process of working with the Vatican and several manufacturers on developing lines for caskets, urns, grave markers, jewelry and keepsakes.

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‘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.

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‘Til We Meet Again to open second custom casket store, this time in Hutchinson

WICHITA — The YouTube video “Death Comes to the Mall” has created more than just curious customers for ‘Til We Meet Again, the custom casket store that opened at Towne West Square in March 2010.

It’s also leading to a second store, this one in Hutchinson, in what owners Nathan Smith and Traci Cone hope will be a franchised chain.

“This whole thing has just taken . . . off and just taken us all by storm,” Smith says.

“I expected us to be open at least two years before we started putting (more) stores in.”

Hutchinson residents James and Robin McComas are two of the more than 120,000 people who have seen one of the videos that customers have made about the unique store.

“We actually drove down to take a look and see what it was,” James McComas says.

Then, Robin McComas’ father died, and her family ordered an urn from ‘Til We Meet Again that was customized to look like her father’s Harley-Davidson.

“It was a wonderful experience in the sense of closure for so many people,” James McComas says.

“Right after that, I kept hounding Nathan. ‘Hey, we’d really like to be partners with you.’ ”

He says the biggest trigger to open the store was when he lost his job as vice president for operations at Promise Regional Medical Center due to restructuring.

“It opened the door to this,” McComas says.

The Hutchinson store will open at 306 N. Main St. on May 19.

“I’m calling mine the Main Street model,” McComas says. “It’s designed for rural America. It’s a little bit different market niche.”

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