Ex-Hooters Girl Now Runs $1 Billion Business, Kat Cole, the 34-year-old president of Cinnabon, got an unlikely start in the food business. From Hooters To High Places: How Kat Cole Turned Cinnabon Into A $1 Billion Brand, Kat Cole, 34, got an unlikely start in the food industry.
While in high school in Jacksonville, Fla., she worked part-time as a Hooters girl, serving beer and chicken wings in those tiny orange shorts. At age 19, she got a once-in-lifetime opportunity to help the restaurant chain expand internationally. She hung up her plans to become an engineer and lawyer, opting instead to take the executive path in food retail. In the decade she spent at Hooters, Cole says it went from approximately 100 locations and $300 million in revenue to 500 locations in 33 countries and $1 billion in revenue.
Now Cole hopes to work her magic again. This time as president of shopping-mall cinnamon roll brand Cinnabon, an Atlanta, Ga.-based unit of the FOCUS Brands portfolio, which also includes Carvel, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and Moe’s Southwestern Grill. Beyond its 1000 franchise locations in 50 countries, Cinnabon has expanded into grocery-store products by partnering with packaged-food kings Pillsbury and Kellogg. It’s also ramping up its presence in other restaurant chains by teaming up with fast-food leaders Burger King and Taco Bell. Cole says it’s about to hit $1 billion in retail sales and will soon be considered one of the “world’s greatest food brands.”
She sat down with me to reveal what’s in store for the company, how she ended up here and why those little shorts were the best thing that happened to her.
Jenna Goudreau: Bring me up to speed on the Cinnabon business.
Kate Cole: It’s becoming one of the world’s greatest food brands. Eventually it will end up in the bucket with brands like Oreo and Hershey.
That’s a bold statement for a shopping-mall pastry.
It’s no longer just a bakery in malls. That’s still the heart, but it’s only the nucleus of a much bigger thing. Several years ago Cinnabon started getting into consumer packaged goods. We own a proprietary ingredient, Cinnabon cinnamon, which is chemically different at the cellular level, making it gooey and aromatic. Because we’ve built credibility in the cinnamon roll space and Pillsbury is the largest seller of refrigerated dough, we joined forces and put our cinnamon in their rolls and our name on the package.
We continued to expand into waffles and pancakes, which led to a partnership with Kellogg’s cereal and other smaller branded partnerships. We now have 60 products-including syrups, sprinkles and Cinnabon International Delight creamer-in grocery and big-box stores like Costco, Wal-Mart, Target and Publix. People go to the grocery much more often than the mall or airport, so it’s a good way to be a regular part of their lives.
You’re also venturing into product licensing. How does that work?
Making products for other restaurant chains is the final frontier and the reason we’re about to hit $1 billion in retail sales, a major milestone for the brand. Licensing is the love-child of franchising and consumer packaged goods because we are now developing products for immediate consumption at other restaurant chains. We’ve got a doughnut product that we developed for Taco Bell called Cinnabon Delights, and we just launched Cinnabon Minibons in over 7,000 Burger King locations. The chains want something that will resonate with consumers, so they’ll pay a premium. The cinnamon, dough and frosting are all proprietary, so with these ingredients we can go anywhere.