Focus Brands' Kat Cole explains how Cinnabons and pretzels are thriving as malls struggle

  • As President and COO of Focus Brands, Kat Cole leads the parent company behind Cinnabon, Auntie Anne's, Carvel, Moe's, Schlotzsky's and McAlister's Deli.
  • Cole's career has been on the fast track since she began in her teens as a hostess at Hooters, rising to vice president there at just 26 years old.
  • She became president of Cinnabon at 32 and has since climbed to her current role.

If you're at the mall and tempted to grab a Cinnabon or an Auntie Anne's pretzel, you could either credit or blame Kat Cole for those indulgent options.

As President and COO of Focus Brands, she leads the parent company behind those franchises, as well as Carvel, Moe's, Schlotzsky's, and McAlister's Deli.

Many locations are in or near shopping malls. Yet despite the decline in brick-and-mortar mall traffic, Cole believes there's a floor, and that "people still want an experience and malls are re-tenanting."

In an interview with CNBC's "On The Money," Cole said how they're finding new ways to get snacks and meals to you in what she calls "the convenience economy".

"The way we've combated [declining mall traffic] is bringing the product off premises to the people," she said.

"You can actually have Cinnabon shipped to you. People are bringing in pretzels and pretzel dogs into their businesses because now you can cater with Auntie Anne's online. So there's many ways to combat it," Cole added.

Cinnabon Bites
Source: Cinnabon
Cinnabon Bites

'Coopertition'

Cole's career has been on the fast track since she began in her teens as a hostess at Hooters, rising to vice president there at just 26 years old. She became president of Cinnabon at 32 and has since climbed to her current role.

While the chain's restaurant offerings range from ice cream to burritos to sliders, Cole describes her management of this wide-ranging group as combining cooperation and competition, a term she called "coopertition."

The two concepts "do work together in a way, so we realized that as we grow through acquisition, some of these brands alone could not afford the resources they need to truly be competitive in the marketplace," Cole told CNBC. "Technology, consumer insights, things that give the franchisees, the local owners, a competitive advantage."

Cole said for those individual franchisees, they're using scale to "leverage the strength of the small business owner. So as a portfolio, we invest in some of those resources to help these brands and business owners punch above their weight."

But there are still differences among the group.

"From menu innovation to customer service, real estate, those things are all distinct to the brands because the businesses are so different," she added.

COUNTING CALORIES

In an environment where consumers are more health conscious, big brands have been challenged by health advocates about fatty and sugary foods. Earlier this month, the FDA began requiring chain restaurants post calorie counts on all food items.

Yet Cole told CNBC they were ahead of the labeling rules.

"We were early movers. As certain cities started mandating it, we decided to just make it national across all of our brands," she said. "We thought it was the right thing to do. We want people to be informed."

She added: "The thing it caused us to do strategically is to make sure we're offering smaller portions, helping people understand how they can eat healthy or healthier."

A Cinnabon Classic Roll has 880 calories, while the smaller portion "MiniBon" has 350 calories.

Cole said that surprisingly, after they began posting the numbers, "behavior did not change."

"What we realized is that when, especially the indulgent brands posted calories, people thought it was much more. "Oh ,I thought it was 2,000 calories, it's only 880, wow."

NEW ROLES

Beyond her new role as COO, Cole is also a new mom and she explains how that has changed her work style and pace.

"Being a mom has one, made me a little less patient because I just want to get home to be with my family. Time is so precious, so I demand more productivity out of the meetings we have," she said.

"I hope what the teams would say is I've shown a greater degree of progressiveness and flexibility in being a more family-friendly culture. It was good before, but I hope it's showing up to a greater degree," Cole added.

She wants "fewer meetings, be more efficient…get it down to as short as it can be, stand up huddles, whatever we can do to help people just be focusing on the business. And when you're not in the business, go be with your family. "

On the Money airs on CNBC Sundays at 5:30 am, or check listings for airtimes in local markets.