Ones to Watch | By Lynne miller
In Philadelphia, Pretzel Boy’s soft pretzel bakery has carved out a successful niche in an area with a voracious appetite for the twisted salty snacks.
Though his chain has snagged “Best of Philly” and “Best of Delaware” awards, co-founder Tim Dever is particularly proud of the attention the company garnered in 2008 when Pretzel Boy’s was featured on the Food Network’s “Throwdown with Bobby Flay.” Flay’s New York pretzel edged out the Philly chain’s version, but Pretzel Boy’s jalapeño cheese sauce took top honors.
“We killed him on the cheese sauce,” Dever says. “Ours was so good, Bobby asked for our recipe. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t give him it.”
Quality ingredients such as those used in that signature cheese are what set Pretzel Boy’s apart from similar concepts, says Dever, a former full-service restaurant operator. Employees make each pretzel from scratch and bake fresh batches throughout the day. Canned products are shunned. Blocks of Vermont cheddar and American cheese and jalapeño chilies are roasted at the stores, diced and mixed to make the Flay-slaying cheese sauce.
All locations, which typically range in size from 850 to 1,200 square feet, operate an on-site bakery, equipped with an oven large enough to accommodate 350 to 400 pretzels at a time. Before dough ends up there, another machine stretches it and employees twist it into pretzel shapes. And to guarantee customers the freshest pretzels possible, workers discard any items that remain unsold after 25 minutes.
The fresh-baked strategy is drawing crowds. It’s not unheard of for shops to sell between 3,500 to 4,500 pretzels a day to a mix of blue- and white-collar workers. The average check is $6.50.
Pretzel Boy’s is also in the wholesale game. Its pretzels appear at sporting events, fundraisers, office functions, and birthday parties. Sales people are big fans, too. They often purchase several dozen pretzels to soften up clients during meetings.
Of the nine varieties, the traditional Philly-style pretzel is the top seller. The pretzel pizza, a Bavarian-style treat topped with pizza sauce and mozzarella cheese, is also popular.
For dipping, customers can choose from three types of mustards and three cheese sauces, including the aforementioned award-winning jalapeño variety. The bakeries offer more than just pretzels and sauces, though. Pretzel-wrapped hot dogs, sausages, and cocktail wiener s are also on the menu. Beverage choices range from soft drinks, iced tea, and lemonade to cappuccino, smoothies, and hot chocolate.
Before opening Pretzel Boy’s, Dever operated five full-service restaurants and bars. But his interest in the pretzel business started early.
When he was a freshman in college, Dever was in the car with his mother when he noticed a man selling soft pretzels at a busy intersection in a Philadelphia suburb. Inspired and cash-starved, Dever drove into the city the next weekend, bought a few hundred of its trademark baked good, and sold them near his Aston, Pennsylvania, home. Although he sold out within a couple of hours and earned $50, the cost of taking a road trip to the congested city kept his profits low. Still, the seed was planted: Why not offer customers their favorite fresh and tasty soft pretzel from the city in the suburbs?
PRESIDENT AND CEO: Tim Dever
HQ: Aston, Pennsylvania
YEAR STARTED: 2004
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 11
FRANCHISE UNITS: 10
Dever teamed up with Mark Gosik, a restaurateur with expertise in finance and operations, and Jason Howe, a master baker and professional chef, to start the company. The trio spent more than a year developing a recipe for their ideal pretzel—crispy on the outside but soft on the inside.
Then Pretzel Boy’s co-founders worked on their business model and, through trial and error, learned what people like about pretzels. After their lease at a local farmer’s market expired, the first Pretzel Boy’s opened in Aston. “It didn’t take long to attract a following. It was a huge success from day one,” Dever says. In line with the founders’ dream to have a Pretzel Boy’s bakery in every hometown, the chain has since expanded to locations, all in different Philadelphia suburbs.
Today, Dever spends most of his days overseeing the stores. All but one is a franchise. Some are owner-operated, while others are run by management teams.
To continue the brand’s success, Dever and his partners are looking for potential franchisees interested in opening stores outside the Philly area—in particular New York. Franchisees can expect to spend from $190,000 to $200,000 to open a store, including a $25,000 franchising fee.
Pretzel Boy’s provides its franchisees with two weeks of training at a company store and ongoing support through store visits, meetings, phone support, operational updates, and improvements.
“Around the Philly area, pretzels are like a staple food,” Dever says. “We think it would catch on in other areas. Once somebody bites into the pretzels, they’re coming back.”