In 2012, Woodburn-raised Eleazar Puente took ownership of the Lloyd Center’s Auntie Anne’s franchise in an unexpected way: he won it in a reality TV show. An employee since 2003 of the 1,800-location pretzel franchise, Puente is expanding his empire. He recently took over the Cinnabon franchise next door, too, and recently told Portland Monthly all about life at the mall.
How did you start out at Auntie Anne’s?
I was born in a big family. I’m the youngest of six kids. We grew up around Woodburn, where the outlet malls were built. I graduated high school and I needed a job like every other person. I would always visit [the Lloyd Center] and they had a little kiosk for the Auntie Anne’s pretzels franchise and sometimes I would take a sample. I always remembered that it was really good. So I went there and, the summer of 2003, I got a job there. I started as a crew member. I was working at the same time I went to Portland State University. I would be driving back and forth [between Woodburn and Portland] and working full time. I had an ‘86 Toyota Corolla. Oh, man. But we made it through.
You auditioned for what you thought was a documentary about Auntie Anne’s—and it turned out to be a reality show....
They were like, OK, we’re going to fly you out to [the Auntie Anne’s] corporate headquarters in Pennsylvania. They flew us out there, and I still didn’t know what I was doing, really. But they were filming us, they took us into the CEO’s office. And that’s where he told us, “Hey, you guys are here to compete for a job promotion and this is actually a reality TV show.” It was a spinoff from Undercover Boss, called Be the Boss. They put us through a lot of different challenges. When the time came to make a decision, [the CEO] actually chose [the other contestant] for the job promotion. And I was like, “Well, you know, I’m a little disappointed, but I’m not going to question your judgment.” And, and then he surprises me and goes, “Well, the real reason why you’re here is because we feel you’d be the best boss. And we’d like to award you the keys to your very own franchise.” The tears started flowing. I was speechless.
What’s the camaraderie like at the mall?
During the earlier years, before the pandemic, we had a lot of tenant meetings at the mall. We’d gather maybe once or twice a week. We really got to network and know each other. I’ve become really good friends with the owner of the Orange Julius on the third floor.
What’s the vibe like now?
Right before the lockdown in March 2020, there were plans for expanding the Lloyd Center. When I heard about the news about the new movie theater going in, and the concert venue slash conference center, potentially a bowling alley ... I was thrilled. Because I feel like that is Portland in a nutshell—so many different diverse opportunities in one location. We have massage and reflexology salons and the Postal Service and nail salons and food stores, bookstores, clothing, footwear, jewelry, you name it. There was so much hope, and there still is hope. There is so much potential here. But this pandemic has definitely backtracked things. Businesses are suffering. That’s the way it is. The new normal.
Are you hopeful?
2021—we’ve had [comparable] sales and nights as in 2019. They’re aren’t as many restaurants open currently right now. So, I do feel like that’s, that’s part of it—the lack of competition is giving us the upper hand. But there’s still people that want to come there. The Lloyd Center is their place to go.