Iconic South Philly pretzel shop asks for help to reopen after power surge

After four decades in business, family-owned Center City Pretzel Co. is fighting for survival.

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Samuel Lieberman / Billy Penn
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A Monday power surge near the Italian Market created a precarious situation for one of the neighborhood’s most recognizable small businesses. Center City Pretzel Co. is fundraising after the electrical failure took out most of its essential equipment, stopping the flow of fresh-baked twists.

The family-owned bakery was already hurting in the wake of the pandemic, said general manager Erika Tonelli-Bonnett, whose father Tony Tonelli founded the pretzel operation in 1981.

Asking for help is not something that comes easily, Tonelli-Bonnett said, but she felt there was no other choice. “We are a proud people,” said the South Philly native, 45. “But because of this pandemic, because of the way business is, because of what has happened outside with the powerline — at this point, I’m not too proud to ask for help.”

Since launching Wednesday, the GoFundMe has raised nearly $10,000.

Over its four decades, the bakery has become an institution. Pretzels from the 50-foot, 500-degree tunnel oven have been shouted out in national publications and inspired odes.

Donating $100 to the cause, Chloe Reison noted she served Center City Pretzels at her wedding. “I just had my first child and I look forward to bringing him to get pretzels on weekend mornings when he’s older and when we’re on the other side of all this,” Reison wrote on GoFundMe.

It has remained small, operating out of a single brick warehouse on Washington Avenue between 8th and 9th streets. In pre-COVID days, vendors picking up bulk orders used the same entrance as students grabbing a 50-cent snack after school. The business never really advertised, Tonelli-Bonnett said, and relied mostly on word of mouth.

Forced to close mid-March by city and state shutdown orders, Center City Pretzel Co. hosted a few successful pop-up events and reopened more permanently around Labor Day. But as public school remains virtual, office buildings sparse, hospitals on edge and vendors out of work, the pretzel co.’s four main sources of revenue have all but evaporated.

With her dad living in Florida, Tonelli-Bonnett made some changes to adjust to the economic strain. She reduced hours to three days a week, and went from nine to four employees by eliminating delivery drivers.

“We are operating right now at probably 15% to 18% of the business that we were doing,” Tonelli-Bonnett said. “In 40 years, we’ve never seen anything like this.”

The shop’s industrial mixer was still down after the Monday power surge, she said, as were the refrigerators — an expensive loss, since workers had to throw out pretzel product that had gone bad. The $5k ask would cover the cost of any electrical work “and get the doors back open,” Tonelli-Bonnett explained.

Philadelphia’s outpouring of support brought Tonelli-Bonnett to tears.

“We were always this little bakery that people knew about, and we never knew the impact that we had on people until we got to see it,” she said. “People who [are probably] struggling, who scrounged up $5 or $10 dollars…you have no idea how that touches us.”

With a $19 donation, the Pezzetti Family called Center City Pretzel Co. the “best around,” and one user named “The Muffinman” added a straightforward message to the page, saying, “America needs pretzels right now.”

Tonelli-Bonnett said she hopes to reopen on Monday, and is even considering adding an extra day.

As the nation braces for the pandemic’s second wave, Tonelli-Bonnett said it’s essential that shoppers support small biz. “The backbone of this city,” she said, “is small business, it’s family business.”

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