CNBC25: Rebels, Icons and Leaders

From hot wings to hot buns: A sinful success story

Cinnabon's sweet success story
Cinnabon's sweet success story

In an era of health obsession and apps to monitor our every calorie and step, here's a business leader who knows a thing or two about nudging Americans back into the sweet embrace of guilty pleasures. Kat Cole, Cinnabon president, has made a career of serving up sinful impulses and turning them into business profits.

"I started out working in the restaurant industry at 17 as a hostess. I became a server and then bartender and when Hooters Restaurants was looking for someone to go help open new franchises all over the world, I was asked to go," recalled Cole when recently interviewed at a Cinnabon store at The Mall at Bay Plaza in the Bronx, New York, after being named to the CNBC NEXT List.

From hot wings to hot buns, it's turned into a lifetime career of building franchises and global brands.

For Cinnabon, what we know we bring to the table is highly differentiated, irresistible indulgence.
Kat Cole
Cinnabon president
Benjamin Wachenje

Cole on the importance of being everywhere

"We needed consumers to understand [Cinnabon] was a brand they knew and loved and of course could be accessed in the mall but in so many other places, to meet them where they were in the way they wanted."

Cole on playing nice with franchise competitors

"The future of business is the concept of coop-etition, cooperating with companies that might be through some lenses viewed as competition, and the lesson in that is having disciple around your brand and what it stands for ... you know what not to give up, share or compromise, but you are also very honest about what you cannot deliver."

Cole on why Cinnabon works

"For Cinnabon, we know what we bring to table is highly differentiated, irresistible indulgence."

Cole on drinking the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid with her sweet baked goods—it's a must

"Part of the success of Cinnabon that is absolutely necessary for any retail business is to adopt some of the behaviors and practices of the tech industry."

C stands for ...

Cole's Twitter handle serves as her professional credo.

"If you look at my Twitter handle the little description says 'Connected-Creative-Conscious-Community building Capitalist.'"

Cole could add another successful "C" for which she could take at least some credit, too: comedy.

Like many American food brands that are far-from-organic, and far-from-gluten-free, and rich in calories, Cole's success has been the butt, or should we say bun, of more than a few jokes over the years, including most famously from less-than-perfect BMI candidates and Cinnabon "fans" Louis CK and Jim Gaffigan, who in his famous riff on Cole's recipe for indulgence had this to say:

"It's kind of generous calling that a bun, it's the size of a beanbag chair."