A Recipe for a Rich and Happy Life A look at Great Harvest Bread Company, one of the happiest franchised empires around
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the mood of fear and anxiety has prompted many people to reevaluate their working lives. For many, this means spending more time with their families. For others, it means reconsidering the idea of working long hard hours now to save up for a great retirement later. Sacrifice in the short term may seem less attractive now that every day is more uncertain, and more precious.
This summer in Montana, we met a group of bakers at Great Harvest Bread Company who have been thinking about how to balance life and business for quite some time and have come up with a winning recipe. Pete and Laura Wakeman started the first Great Harvest bakery in Great Falls, Montana, in 1976. Two years later, their success led them to franchise their bakery, but in a way that preserved their ideals: no uniforms, few rules and an emphasis on community-building. "A lot of people think we woke up one day and thought, 'Let's be entrepreneurs.' It wasn't that way. We were in our twenties and out in Montana," says Laura Wakeman. "We just thought, 'Let's figure out a way to stay out here.'"
Today, Great Harvest Bread is a mini-empire of about 150 "feels good, tastes great" bread stores across the country, operating under the "freedom franchise" umbrella. That's the term the Wakemans came up with to describe a franchise in which the rules for franchise owners are few. Everything but the name, the daily grinding of the flour and the sources of wheat for the bread is up to the individual owner. The franchise contract even states, "Anything not expressly prohibited by the language of this agreement is allowed." Great Harvest does operate according to the basics of franchising: Owners turn back 7 percent of gross sales to the franchise company, which in turn provides a host of support, such as bread recipes, baking techniques, accounting advice and store-design tips.
One of the first tenets is the importance of music, the "heartbeat" of the store. In the Missoula bakery, upbeat reggae thumps from speakers as employees knead dough around a table in the middle of the store. They work in rhythm to the music, joking and laughing. Fresh bread turns in the oven, and new loaves are moved up to the counter's bread board, another Great Harvest trademark, where everyone who enters the store is offered a free thick slice of freshly baked bread, slathered with butter and honey if they choose.
Like all members of the Great Harvest franchise system, the owners of the Missoula Great Harvest bakery, Dave Scheel and Linda Tawney, live by the mission statement of Great Harvest Bread, written by the Wakemans: "Be loose and have fun. Bake phenomenal bread. Run fast to help customers. Create strong, exciting bakeries. And give generously to others." As Scheel puts it, "If we decide one day that we want to become a pizza store, because that's more fun, then that's what we'll do."
Tom McMakin, former COO of Great Harvest Franchising, is hoping to spread the ideas behind the company through his book, Bread and Butter: What a Bunch of Bakers Taught Me about Business and Happiness. "People laugh when they hear that title, because you don't often hear business and happiness in the same sentence. It's almost an oxymoron," says McMakin, who himself moved to Montana almost a decade ago with his wife, Mary, in search of a better life. "We're very mindful of the fact that business is not an end in itself. It's a means to create a happier life.
"It's a very different lesson than the dotcom ethos that says work like heck, cash out and then move to Montana. Here you have [Missoula store owners] Dave and Linda. They went ahead and moved to Montana first. They're not trying to make a billion dollars. They said, 'Let's design a life that works for us and have the business be part of that design.' "
Scheel and Tawney may not be trying to make a billion dollars from their Missoula bakery, but profits are not a dirty word at Great Harvest. "We've always been interested in profits," says Scheel. "Profits are what buys the things you need to have a successful business. If you watch successful businesses, they're the ones that have the money to make those changes over time and keep the place looking good."
Though life may be idyllic in Dillon, Montana, Great Harvest headquarters, it is not static. This past spring, the Wakemans sold the franchise business after 25 years. The new president and CEO, Mike Ferretti, was CFO for a North Carolina franchise, L'il Dino Delis. Ferretti met the Wakemans through a friend of a friend, who thought Ferretti, a self-confessed "numbers geek," should buy the business. "I kept telling him, 'Bread company? Montana? Me? Forget it,' " he remembers. Ferretti bought Great Harvest with a group of other investors, also from North Carolina, who were excited about the company's potential.
"It's a sleeping giant," says Ferretti. "It's a culture that a lot of people dream of and a lifestyle that other people dream of, and it's been run in this very low-key way for years. I don't plan to change it, but my groups and my background are a more professional background." Ferretti would like to see the franchise opening two new stores a month once the transition to new ownership is complete. With more than 600 cities in the United States with a population of 50,000 or more, Ferretti is convinced he won't run out of new markets for a long time.
Through the terms of the loan the new owners obtained to purchase the business, the headquarters must remain in Montana as long as the loan is out, but Ferretti says he has no plans to move the company, even when this requirement expires. "The whole Montana mystique is part of who we are. A lot of Great Harvest clones have tried to duplicate our business model but never pulled it off," says Ferretti. "It'd be a mentally challenged business decision to move the headquarters out of Montana."
While Ferretti admits the freedom in the Great Harvest system can be difficult to manage at times, he also sees strength in that lack of structure. "I have a typical franchise background," he says, " and in this business, everything is virtually voluntary. So the systems we make had better be good enough so that people actually want to use them. That's a standard of excellence that most franchises never know."
Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and the author of201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business. For a free copy of her "Business Owner's Check Up," send your name and address to Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham NY 10803 or e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah Prior contributed to this article.