How much does Philly love soft pretzels? Ask the internet and you’ll discover Philadelphians consume 12 times as many as the average American in a given year — a pretty hefty helping of pretzel adoration. Only thing is, the oft-cited statistic has no clear basis in reality.
“Unfortunately, we’ve never been able to validate that claim,” says Gerard “Jerry” Law, senior vice president for J&J Snack Foods Corp.
J&J is the Pennsauken, N.J.-based parent company of SuperPretzel, the country’s most prolific soft pretzel producer, so it’s safe to assume it’s done plenty of research on consumption habits. “I think it was probably propaganda put out by that Pretzel Museum,” Law adds.
The Pretzel Museum in question was opened in 1993 in Philly’s Historic District by members of the family that ran Federal Pretzel Baking Company, the country’s first large-scale pretzel manufacturer. It only lasted two years, and put out some specious information, but its underlying philosophy — that soft pretzels deserve a place of honor — was certainly valid.
It was back in 1983 that U.S. Rep. Bob Walker (R, Lancaster County) declared his favorite snack should have a commemorative day, or so goes the legend. In 2003, Governor Ed Rendell made it official, proclaiming that April 26 henceforth be known as National Pretzel Day.
Nowadays, pretzel manufacturers all over the country celebrate the unofficial holiday with deals and giveaways. But to those who grew up in Philadelphia, soft pretzels are a way of life. That includes Law, who hails from Mayfair and remembers eating a pretzel for breakfast just about every day as he walked to Catholic school. At Drexel, his senior internship was as an engineer for SuperPretzel. He never left.
“I guess pretzels were my destiny,” he says with a laugh.
With a workforce of more than 3,500, J&J Snack Foods now puts out several other brands — ICEE, Slush Puppie, California Churro, etc. — but pretzels are definitely its bread and butter (sorry). Not only do more than 1 billion SuperPretzels roll off its lines every year, SuperPretzel was also the company’s original brand. In 1971, Gerald B. Schreiber bought the assets of J&J Pretzel Co. out of bankruptcy for a grand total of $72,100.
Forty-five years later, annual revenues top $800 million, but Shreiber, 73, still comes to the office every day (with one of his five dogs in tow) and the company is generally a fun place to work.
“People enjoy eating what we make,” says Law. “They eat our product and smile, and associate it with fun memories, either of childhood or at a game.”
Sports arenas are a huge market for SuperPretzel. Law estimates the iconic “pretzel tree” display warmer spins at more than 150 stadiums across the nation, including close to 100 percent of ballparks. Ready-to-eat pretzels account for nearly three quarters of SuperPretzel sales, he says, but the company also does good business in supermarkets, where they sell heat-your-own pretzels in the frozen section.
The frozen pretzels are made from exactly the same recipe as the ready-to-eat version, with the exception that you have to add your own salt after you bake them. Why?
“If we had the salt on the pretzels already, it would melt into the dough,” Law explains. Asked if there was anything the company could do to cut down on the mess the salt makes when sprinkling it on the hot pretzels — it has a knack for falling in that crevice between the stove and the counter — he suggests that burden is on the consumer. “Maybe aim better? Actually the trick is to put the salt in the pan and dip the pretzel in that, not sprinkle it on.”
The whole gluten-free fad didn’t really affect sales, he says, because “we’re more a fun food than a functional food.” Plus, he points out, as far as snack foods go, pretzels are relatively healthy, “low in fat, baked and not fried.”
In general, the market continues to grow because of something Law refers to as “pretzelization.”
“Pretzel buns and all kinds of other pretzel mashups are popular,” he says. Though SuperPretzel is the biggest brand, J&J also owns other pretzel labels, like Bakers Best, Kim & Scott’s and Federal Pretzel Baking Co., which it acquired from the Nacchio family in 2000.
“That’s our answer to the Philly-style pretzel [i.e. smushed into an oblong figure-eight instead of a fat round twist],” he says. “By volume, probably more soft pretzels are sold in New York, simply because they have the mass. But per capita, Philly has to be the pretzel capital, no question about it.”