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Washington Square store fighting hunger one pretzel at a time

Thanks to a 30-minute freshness guarantee, Auntie Anne's donates a lot of still-good food to the community
by: Jaime Valdez Auntie Anne’s owner Dennis Kwon serves up a pretzel soon after it comes out of the oven.

Two embarrassing truths are at war with each other in our country right now. On one hand, we're informed, 14 billion pounds of food are sent to U.S. landfills every year. And on the other, 30 million people - 12 million of them children - go to bed hungry every night.

Meet Dennis Kwon, the owner of a pretzel business at Washington Square. At his Auntie Anne's franchise, he and his crew are doing battle with hunger one pretzel at a time.

But don't get the idea this is a small effort. The Washington Square business gives away 1,500 pretzels a week, to the Good Neighbor Center in Tigard and to the local Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

That's more than 78,000 pretzels a year.

The reason this generosity is even possible is due largely to the '30-minute freshness guarantee' that all Auntie Anne's franchises are required to follow - and the corporation has more than 1,100 locations in 44 states and more than 22 countries.

What was happening, said Kwon, sitting at a table in his store next door to Starbucks just across the way from Cinnabon, was those pretzels more than 30 minutes old were being thrown away. It just didn't make sense, he said.

'It's for a good cause - and rather than just wasting them . . . ' he said, finishing the sentence with a shrug rather than words.

Before we go any further, though, let's review what Auntie Anne's is all about. The main product is a soft, hand-rolled pretzel roughly the size of a baseball glove. They come in 'original,' 'cinnamon sugar,' 'almond,' pepperoni,' 'sour cream and onion,' 'garlic' and then the little show-off 'pretzel dog,' which is a Nathan's hot dog wrapped in Auntie Anne's dough, baked and then stashed in its own little foil blanket. The business also offers 'stix' and bite-size 'nuggets,' not to mention the array of lemonade, ice cream and other goodies.

'We have it all ready'

Kwon and his 28 employees have been doing this for years now.

'They come Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays,' said the 42-year-old businessman. 'We have it all ready. We sort it out, we bag it and keep everything straight, by date and everything.'

Near the back wall behind the counter sits a large tub containing sizeable plastic bags, where the 31-minute-old pretzels go when they are evicted from their warm, bright home up front. Each bag is labeled: one for original pretzels, one for cinnamon, sugar and almonds, another for pretzel dogs, and a fourth for the pepperoni pretzels.

As soon as the bags contain 12 items, they are transferred to the big walk-in refrigerator in back, where they wait for the thrice-weekly pick-up.

'We're kind of tucked away in the corner of the mall,' said Kwon, of the store's spot inside the south entrance close to the mall's security office. But his franchise has two secret weapons: kiosks out in the mall - one not far from See's Candies and the other near Nordstrom. And those outposts are especially good for impulse buys from passing shoppers, he said.

They're also good contributors to the 30-minute freshness rule.

Every time an employee heads out to restock the kiosks with fresh pretzel replacements, there's a good chance he or she will return with some items bound for the reject bags.

Kwon has been with Auntie Anne's since 2004 and at the Washington Square since 2007. He was working at an Auntie Anne's in Spokane when he was offered the opportunity to open a new store here, he said, so he sold the other one and took the plunge.

'It's a great thing'

'It's a really good resource for the community, and I applaud them for doing what they're doing,' said Sydney Webb, outgoing executive director of the Good Neighbor Center and a former Tigard City Council member.

Ironically, said Webb, the Monday delivery of pretzels creates a challenge for the center because the 30 bags or so it receives is more than the center's residents and staff can easily absorb.

'We share it with as many people as we can,' she said. 'But it's food, and people are hungry - so it's a great thing.'

Starbucks has a similar donation program, said Webb, adding that the Tigard center also receives food from an assortment of restaurants and stores.

'There's a whole network in this entire area that go around picking up food and bringing it back here,' Webb added. 'There's a lot of sharing in the community, and it's all really great.'

Anticipating demands

Originally from South Korea, Kwon moved to the United States with his family at age 11, first to Seattle, but, he added, they 'moved around a lot.'

He went to the University of Oregon, where he met his wife, Marielle. They graduated in 1991 and were married the same year. They spent time in Boston, where Marielle pursued her optometry degree.

Life in Spokane was going fine, said Kwon, but he added, 'We'd been wanting to come back to this area because my wife and I both graduated from the U of O,' he said.

The real trick in running a successful pretzel franchise - especially one where the difference in profit and loss is tied to a 30-minute freshness policy - is anticipating the customer demands before they happen. Simple experience helps a lot, so they know enough to boost production at lunch and dinner times and hold back a little in the slow periods.

'Then, on the weekends, we just keep making and making them.'

Most of the time, there are four to five people on the premises, he explained. On weekends, that number climbs to 'about eight in the store here and one in each kiosk.'

'We make our dough fresh every hour,' Kwon explained, showing the large bowl and mixer where the ingredients are first stirred up. Then the dough is parceled out into metal bowls and left under the counter for a prescribed period of time before being shifted to the pretzel-making area up by the front window, where passersby can watch the lightning-fast flipping and whirling that turns fat ropes of dough into the familiar pretzel knot.

'That's the very best'

From the counter, trays of the raw pretzels go into one of several small ovens that never really stop baking. At a certain interval, the tray is pulled out and spun around to ensure that everything gets browned evenly. After about five minutes in the oven, the trays are yanked, the pretzels given a fine coat of butter and stood on end to dry for a second. Then - hopefully - somebody comes along and orders one while it's still only a minute or two old.

'Ideally, you want to sell them right out of the oven,' said Kwon. 'That's the very best.'

A sign on the front counter underscores the half-hour freshness guarantee: 'We guarantee you'll love your pretzel or we'll replace it with one that you do.'

The favorite choice of Washington Square customers is the original pretzel, said Kwon. The second-best seller is the cinnamon variety.

There is, by the way, a psychological benefit to working at a business where one of the corporate policies - in this case, the donation of unused food to organizations that need it - does something good for the community. We all recognize, Kwon acknowledged, that hunger is a serious problem, in the country, in Oregon and even in relatively well-to-do Washington County.

'My employees, they're actually excited to see that we're doing something about it, as a team, as a store,' he said. 'Just having employees that are excited, I think that makes the program go a lot more smoothly.'