Small Business Success Story: Great Harvest Bread Co.

AJ and Jon Whiting traded corporate America to follow their entrepreneurial dream as owners of two Idaho locations of the Great Harvest Bread Co. franchise.

Nicola McIntosh Sep 11, 2019

It’s tough to resist the siren call of freshly baked, big-as-your-face cinnamon rolls, over 25 varieties of hot, hand kneaded loaves of made from scratch bread, or the sweet-and-savory marriage of pumpkin cake swirled with a dreamy rich cream cheese frosting.

Those tasty treats keep customers coming back to Great Harvest Bread Co., even in the face of  low-carb diet fads and economic recessions. And it’s that proven model that drew Jon and AJ Whiting to leave corporate America behind and embrace the entrepreneurial journey as Great Harvest Bread Co. franchisees with locations in Meridian and Eagle, Idaho.

Name: Annjanette Whiting, 44
Title: Owner
Hometown and current residence: Meridian (Meridian High School), currently reside in Nampa
Education: Boise State, Communications
First job: Taco Bell

Name: Jon Whiting, 46
Title: Owner
Hometown and current residence:  Boise (Capital High School), currently reside in Nampa
Education: Boise State, Business Management
First job: Albertsons (Courtesy Clerk)

Why did you decide to purchase a Great Harvest Bread Co. franchise?

AJ: Our oldest daughter got a job at Great Harvest Bread Company in Kennewick, Washington and we absolutely fell in love with the product and the entire vibe of the bakery. Everyone seemed to love their job.

We had been moving around for Jon’s industry every few years and we were tiring of it, and wanted to come home to Idaho. We began to look at owning our own business. We visited over 20 Great Harvest Bread Companies throughout the Northwest and talked to all of the different owners. People truly had a passion for what they did and never regretted taking that leap of faith.

Jon: It was a great opportunity for us to buy an existing store with existing bakers and processes so that we would be able to put ourselves in the best situation to succeed. We got a grandfathered royalty rate, which was huge. If we had opened a new store, it was going to be significantly more than what we currently pay.

Employees at Great Harvest Bread Co
Jon and AJ Whiting

Did you consider other franchises?

Jon: We were so in love with the Great Harvest franchise and model. We sat down with the owner of Kennewick, WA., who had made a similar move from corporate America to owning his own franchise. He was very open and up front with us but ultimately we really liked what we heard. We started looking at all other Great Harvests in the area. We wanted to make sure we were making the right decision.

AJ: We fell in love with the fact that it was a proven model. Great Harvest has been around for over 40 years. We fell in love with the fact that it was a proven model. Even though people have diet crazes where they give up bread, and even through recessions, people continue to buy this product.

What are the benefits of owning a franchise?

AJ: One of the perks of having the franchise, is having a network of other franchise owners – more than 200 across the country.

Jon: The franchise gives us tools. We’ve got the “Bread Board,” it’s a website, where we can interact with other owners. It’s a fantastic resource to get questions answered quickly. The owner in Kennewick has become a mentor to us. He wants us to be successful and he’s been a great resource.

We also have a three-day convention which is a great opportunity to get together with other owners to talk about challenges, struggles and successes.

What are the requirements of owning a Great Harvest franchise?

man holding a tray of bread loaves
Before purchasing the franchise, the Whitings spent three weeks learning the ropes at Great Harvest Bread Co.’s headquarters in Montana.

AJ: We’re in a bit of a unique franchise. It’s called a freedom franchise, which means that the folks at headquarters are more hands off. We do all use their quality Montana wheat, agree to mill it fresh every morning, and only sell it the day we bake it. Otherwise, we have the freedom to sell whatever types of breads, sweets, and sandwiches we want.

Jon: They do require new owners to be in the store for a set number of hours per week for the first year. It does take a while to learn the ins and outs of the business and also what works and what doesn’t. We have a fantastic management team, but we’re both there every day in both stores for the most part. We believe being in the stores and getting to know our customers makes a huge difference.

Any blind spots on your journey to becoming franchise owners?

AJ: We underestimated how long the U.S. Small Business Administration loan process would take and how hard it would be. We owe a great benefit to Zions Bank for getting us through that.

Jon: That could not be overstated at all. Karen Appelgren and Marilyn Hickman, man alive, we would not have been able to do that without them.

What advice do you have for someone looking to purchase a franchise?

AJ: Get a good bookkeeper. There is so much going on and when you start a new business, it truly saved us to have someone knowledgeable handling that for us!

Jon:  People go in with their eyes closed and think, “It’s a proven model. I’ll just put this somewhere and it’s going to succeed.”  Even within Great Harvest, we’ve seen people who haven’t done their research and struggled significantly.  We really did our homework because for us, failure was not an option. We put everything we had into this.

What is the biggest challenge as small business owners?

AJ: It’s definitely staffing and finding the right people. One employee with a bad attitude can change the entire atmosphere.  I take the same approach to finding the highest quality people as I do the highest quality ingredients for our bread.

We treat everyone like family. They need to know they’re appreciated and loved, and they respect us. That’s one of the reasons to own your own business – so you can hire people that you genuinely like and want to work with every day. They’re going to touch our lives and we’ll touch theirs.

Are there any other business challenges?

AJ: Bringing the business home. Because it doesn’t end at the end of your workday. The positive is you have a common goal. But it can take over your life if you let it.

Jon: You have to recognize that no matter how great your employees are they’ll never do the job the exact same way we would. They don’t have invested in it what we do. We train and recognize that sometimes mistakes happen and we understand and are kind in our corrections.

What's it like working with your spouse every day?

AJ: We complement each other very well. Jon has background in business and brought a lot of number sense. I brought the consumer and service experience.  He takes care of the back of house and bakers. I take care of front of house and customer service.  We don’t always agree, but you always have to be unified in front of your team. We never want to be divided in front of them.

Jon: It was hard at first, it really was. But we’ve settled into it now and it’s awesome. But when you’re trying to identify which part is mine and which part is yours, there was some head butting initially trying to figure out where that was. We capitalize on each other’s talents and passions and now it really flows.

cinnamon roll
Great Harvest’s Facebook page calls them “as-big-as-your-face cinnamon rolls.”

What role has Zions Bank played on your journey?

AJ: Having the right bank really made all the difference,  because you really want it done quickly and you want it done right. Having people that are knowledgeable and care about you makes a big difference.

Looking to follow in the Whiting’s footsteps by purchasing a franchise? Zions Bank offers online tools including business templates, columns, videos and financial calculators. Our Business Resource Centers in Salt Lake City and Boise, Idaho, provide counseling and training for entrepreneurs.

Visit a Zions Bank branch or locate a banker near you to learn more about financing including SBA loans.

Nicola McIntosh is Social Media manager for Zions Bank.

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