— Philly Pretzel Factory CEO will get a closer look at the twists and turns of his business when he’s on TV’s ‘Undercover Boss’
One of Dan DiZio’s favorite television programs is the CBS reality series Undercover Boss.
DiZio can relate a little, as he is the CEO and founding partner of the Philly Pretzel Factory.
“I’ve always loved the show and thought maybe one day, if the company got big, we could possibly be on it,” he said.
The pretzel factory uses a public relations firm that has had clients appear on the show, which airs Fridays at 8 p.m. Repeat episodes are broadcast on TLC.
Since debuting on Feb. 7, 2010, following Super Bowl XLIV, Undercover Boss has profiled some of the nation’s most prominent companies. The list includes Waste Management, NASCAR, Yankee Candle, Oriental Trading, Choice Hotels, 7-Eleven, Checkers and Hooters.
And, as of April 27, you can add the Philly Pretzel Factory to the list.
“We’re pretty lucky to be in a spot to be picked,” DiZio said. “We’re small in the scope of the show. Ninety-nine percent of the public doesn’t know who Philly Pretzel Factory is.”
The Philly Pretzel Factory sure isn’t small on the East Coast. There are about 130 locations in eight states.
In the Northeast area, there are six sites: 1903 Cottman Ave., 1687 Grant Ave., 12363 Academy Road, 5200 Frankford Ave., 3377 Aramingo Ave. and the original store at 7366 Frankford Ave. in Mayfair.
The show interviewed DiZio last summer, and he was told in October that the company had been chosen.
“I gave it a day’s thought. There are no guarantees that they won’t make you look bad. There’s a level of risk to be on the show. But there was too much upside,” he said in explaining why he agreed to appear on the show.
Taping for the show took place from late November to Dec. 10.
For anyone unfamiliar with the show, the boss goes undercover in his company and typically gets embarrassed in some way. His appearance is altered, and he’s given an alias and a fictional back story. Employees are given an explanation for the presence of cameras. At the end, the CEO’s identity is revealed.
DiZio, 40, who is normally clean-shaven, grew a beard at the direction of the show. The crew shaved the beard to a goatee, dyed his dark hair blond and cut it short. He put blue contact lenses onto his brown eyes. He also wore a visor, like employees do.
“They were trying to get me to look more youthful,” he said.
DiZio had his doubts about whether he’d go unrecognized.
“We have almost a hundred and thirty locations, and I thought there was no way they could disguise me,” he said. “But it worked. It fools them.”
DiZio has to keep the details of his appearance secret until the episode is aired. He cannot say which locations were used for taping or whether any employees criticized management. He also can’t reveal anything about rewards given to staff, a staple of the show.
What he can say is that he worked all aspects of the business, including operating a cash register that is a lot more complex than the one he used when he opened his first store in 1998.
“I was twisting pretzels, baking pretzels, cleaning, making deliveries, pretty much everything that goes on in the daily operation,” he said.
At first, DiZio thought he might be getting tricked, that somebody had fooled him into thinking that he was really being featured on a prominent network television program.
By the end, he learned a lot.
“I sort of forgot how hard the work is,” he said. “It was a humbling experience. It opened my eyes to what the franchisees and employees go through on a daily basis. It’s a long, long day. It’s easy to make decisions in a boardroom, but they have a meaningful impact.”
DiZio said the experience was at times fun, nerve-racking and exhausting, but most of all a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Never in a million years did I think there would be an hourlong national TV show about me and my partner (college buddy Len Lehman). At certain moments during filming, it was surreal for me,” he said.
DiZio got his start in the business as an 11-year-old selling pretzels along Roosevelt Boulevard at various intersections from Harbison Avenue north. Back then, the pretzels were five for a dollar. He spent about a decade hawking one of Philadelphians’ favorite snacks.
Today, thanks to a famous and eye-opening 1993 news story by Channel 10’s Herb Denenberg about unsanitary handling of pretzels by street vendors, the product is now sold almost exclusively at stores.
When DiZio opened his first store on May 2, 1998, people were happy that they could buy pretzels at a clean shop and see them being made. As a bonus, the pretzels were still warm after being taken out of the oven.
The first franchise store opened in 2004.
Today, Pretzel Factory stores sell more than 100 million items per year. The lines will be long on April 26, National Pretzel Day, when all customers receive a free pretzel. The first 100 customers will receive a free pretzel every day in May.
On May 19, the Pretzel Factory will celebrate its 14th anniversary and contribute to the festive atmosphere of the Mayfair May Fair by holding a block party at the store at Frankford and Bleigh avenues as a thank you to the community for its support. There will be a disc jockey, face-painter, free water ice, games, Moonbounce, pony rides and a pretzel dog-eating contest.
Once the episode airs, DiZio expects to receive a big increase in telephone calls, Web site visits and e-mails from potential franchise operators and more customer traffic in existing stores.
“We’re always trying to gain new customers,” he said.
Undercover Boss wins its time slot and pulls in pretty good ratings for a Friday night.
Businesses that appear on Undercover Boss are not compensated, nor do they pay CBS for the right to appear on air. Any rewards to employees come out of the company owner’s pockets.
DiZio is looking forward to the show’s airing. He doesn’t get a preview.
“The day everyone else sees it, I see it,” he said.
In mid-March, he went on a business trip to Utah and spoke to a half-dozen CEOs whose companies were profiled on the show.
“As a whole, they all came away that it was a positive,” he said.
DiZio will invite family and friends to his house to watch the show.
“I’d rather them laugh with me, not at me,” he said. ••