’Til We Meet Again opens in Amarillo, Texas

UPDATED — ’Til We Meet Again, the casket store at Towne West Square that’s turning into a national chain, is now in another new market with a new focus.

“This one officially makes number four,” Traci Smith-Cone says of a new store in Westgate Mall in Amarillo.

Smith-Cone, who started the concept with Nathan Smith in 2010, says that mall is the only one in a 125-mile radius, and it’s in a great spot.

“Amarillo is often referred to as the crossroads of the United States,” she says.

Until now, the chain’s concept has been to specialize in custom caskets and urns, but memorial products are an increased focus of the business.

“Grief isn’t just a one-time event,” Smith-Cone says. “It is ongoing.”

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‘Til We Meet Again owners gamble on new Louisiana store

WICHITA — ’Til We Meet Again business partners Nathan Smith and Traci Smith-Cone should consider buying some lottery tickets. They’ve already won one big gamble this week.

Thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision to let an appellate ruling stand, casket dealers are now going to be able to sell in Louisiana, which previously allowed only licensed funeral home directors to make the sales.

Smith and Smith-Cone gambled that this might be the case and have a store ready to go in the Esplanade mall in Kenner, La., which is a suburb of New Orleans.

“We were going to take our chances because we wanted to be the first ones in this market,” Smith says.

“It was worth the calculated risk,” he says. “We do believe this market … is going to be one of our top markets.”

There are a few reasons for that, Smith says.

“We’re not just the first store of its kind, but we’re going into a state that has never had even a casket store,” he says.

“Once an industry corners a market, as we all know, they control the pricing, they control the distribution, they control everything. Caskets in Louisiana, in some parts, (are) double what they are anywhere else in the United States.”

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“Shipping Wars” features ‘Til We Meet Again

WICHITA — More than a year after filming, “Shipping Wars” aired footage of ’Til We Meet Again shipping a custom casket on Jan. 16.

Nathan Smith says he and business partner Traci Smith-Cone weren’t allowed to publicize the A&E show’s air date, but the episode will replay on Feb. 3.

Smith says the show shot more than three hours of footage but used only a minute and a half.

“It was a lot of fun doing it.”

The show didn’t use the ’Til We Meet Again name, but it mentioned Smith and Wichita, so people have found the store.

“We’ve had so many calls about it already,” he says. “You can’t pay for advertisement like that.”

It’s given Smith-Cone an opportunity to tease Smith, too.

“She’s said it’s always frightening to see me at 52 inches.”

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 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.”

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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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You don’t say

“It just blew us away. … We were not ready for it whatsoever.”

Nathan Smith of ’Til We Meet Again on an Entrepreneur article on the Towne West Square casket store that ran a month early and has led to a deluge of calls

‘Til We Meet Again custom casket store to open at Towne West Square

poker

WICHITA — Nathan Smith wants to talk about his new store, but first he has a few questions.

“Are you ready?” he says of the new business at Towne West Square.

“Are you sure you’re ready? Is Wichita ready?”

His business, ’Til We Meet Again, will sell custom caskets and urns.

“It’s very specialized, very unique,” Smith says. “You can personalize it however you want.”

That could be with such things as a college-themed casket or one decorated with motorcycle memorabilia. There’s a whole service-oriented line, such as for firemen and members of the military.

The business is a switch for Smith, who has been a sales-and-marketing consultant across the country for the last 16 years.

“I was tired of the travel and tired of relocating my family,” he says.

He’s long had the idea for this company.

“I drew my first custom casket in a meeting — a very boring meeting, obviously.”

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