Willow Group lands Texas-size franchise deal for 14 new ‘Til We Meet Again stores

UPDATED — On the heels of getting its first franchise in April, the Willow Group has inked a deal with an undisclosed group for 14 ’Til We Meet Again stores in Texas. All of them will be open no later than 2014.

“It’s huge,” says Nathan Smith, who is partners with Traci Smith-Cone in the venture.

The two opened the custom casket store in Towne West Square in 2010 with no plans to franchise.

That changed, though, and in April they landed their first franchise with a store in Glenbrook Square Mall in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Smith says they’ve just finalized a deal for a Milwaukee store, though the franchisee hasn’t signed a lease for mall space yet, and are close on a three-store deal in Phoenix.

Smith thinks the Texas deal will help him and Smith-Cone close other deals.

“For the folks that are out there that we’re talking to right now … those guys that are on the fence … seeing that definitely gets them off the fence quickly,” Smith says. “It helps legitimize what we’re doing.”

He says it gives other potential franchisees a sense of security to know “they’re not the first ones, and they’re not doing this by themselves.”

Smith says he and Smith-Cone have the infrastructure in place for the rapid expansion.

“That’s what is the best part about what we’re doing here and what makes this work,” he says.

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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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