Pretzels from the heartland

St. Louis, MO, has seen a large surge in microbreweries in the recent past. Some say it might have something to do with the Anheuser Busch sale to Belgian brewer, InBev SA. This might have opened the door for aggressive growth in the area and region. Whether the sale of Anheuser Busch has anything to do with it or not one thing is clear, microbreweries have grown, the have tasting rooms and inside those tasting rooms are pretzels. “Every tasting room that we see in St. Louis includes either pretzel sticks or a larger twisted pretzel,” says Josh Allen, founder of Companion Bakery in St. Louis, “and they’ve been really excited to see a true Bavarian style pretzel as opposed to what I think has been out there for a long time which is the super pretzel or stadium style pretzel.”

Companion started its pretzel category about four years ago through a collaborative chef program with chefs in the St. Louis area. “It was almost like a seasonal bread program where we would tie a bread to a particular chef and they would help us come up with a bread and then have a dish on their menu,” Allen says. One particular chef involved with the program drew the month of October. The chef really wanted to do something with a pretzel for the Oktoberfest celebration.

Companion developed the true Bavarian style pretzel for the chef, and in conjunction with the program, made it available to grocery stores during that part of the rotation in the program. “It just absolutely blew up for us that October,” Allen says. “It just really hit at the right time and we’ve been making pretzels ever since.”

True Bavarian style pretzels differ from the usual pretzels that most shoppers have become accustomed in that they have an interesting step in the process. “A true Bavarian pretzel needs a caustic soda bath and it’s a dangerous and messy process,” Allen says. When Companion first started making the pretzels, it was just plastic aprons and masks. “We were just dipping into bus tubs full of lye and it was a mess and a little bit frightening,” he adds.

Eventually Companion invested in a dip tank to streamline the process and make it safer on its staff. This made a big piece of pretzel production smoother. “Not only is it a big piece of the expense, but there is some concern for your employees in that process,” Allen says, “but you can’t really duplicate the process any other way.”

Marketing and Promotion

Originally the only marketing done on the pretzels was what was already involved for the monthly collaboration project with areas chefs. “There would be some signage, we’d do a video recipe and an ad with the chefs,” Allen says, “but we didn’t do anything more for the pretzels than we had done for the other breads.” However, the pretzels took off. Companion sold roughly 100 units a week of the other products while the pretzels sold 800-100 units a week of a four pack pretzel for the month of October, Allen says. “It was just crazy relative to the rest of the program.”

With the original success of the program, Companion kept the pretzels as part of its regular line up. Allen says that Companion spends about eight weeks a year doing something big with the pretzels and the rest of the year they remain as just part of the regular program. In addition to tournament basketball ball promotions in March for foodservice and grocery store, and tailgating promotions from mid-September through mid-October, they’ve also developed some partnerships with local microbreweries.

“Generally we’ve been partnering with one microbrewery at a time,” Allen says. “In the spring we do one microbrewery with a pale ale and then the October promotion is with a brewery here in St. Louis that sells a ton of pumpkin ale.” This gives Companion the opportunity to get displays not only in the bakery, but in the liquor departments as well.

Done the right way and with the right promotions and marketing, pretzels can provide an excellent return for the retail bakery.

Dipping sauces for pretzels

Part of the pretzel experience is the dipping. While a bakery could take the idea of a signature pretzel dipping in any direction and develop a signature sauce unique to them, some sauces are mainstays when it comes to pretzels. Look to these for inspiration, but put together your recipes with your own secret ingredients to make them unique to your bakery.

  • Beer cheese dip – experiment with different types and brands of beer
  • Cheddar mustard sauce – use white and yellow cheddars of different ages to perfect
  • Honey mustard – yellow mustard, brown mustard and spicy mustard varieties will give different   tastes and textures
  • Spicy cheese sauce – both hot and mild peppers and sauces can be used to adjust the level of heat