Everyone has heard of pretzels. But have you heard of soft pretzels? We’re not talking a cinnamon-sugared Auntie Anne’s at the local food court or a microwavable Super Pretzel hanging like ornaments on hooks in a rotating warming cabinet at the movies. No, we mean real legit Philadelphia soft pretzels—dense, chewy, breadlike creations whose local origins date to the 1800s, when the region’s German immigrants (called Pennsylvania Dutch, for the word ‘Deutsch’) began recreating the bretzels of their homeland.
According to Philly-based New York Times writer Elaine Dann Goldstein, Julius Sturgis opened the area’s first pretzel bakery in Lititz, Pennsylvania, in 1861. “Lewis, one of the youngest of his 14 children, was still running it almost until his death in 1976,” she wrote in the Times. “He used to tell how his father developed the recipe from one given by a hobo in exchange for a meal, how travelers would stock up on them as survival food and that pretzels were sent to his brother William in Andersonville prison during the Civil War.”
Built from stones dug up from the street and timber from the surrounding forest, Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery still stands today. You can visit—Lititz is just about an hour from the city, in beautiful Lancaster County—and even go on a guided tour of the bakery before buying out their pretzel stock. But if don’t have the time to make the trek, don’t worry. There are longstanding trading and agricultural ties between Philadelphia and Lancaster; Lancaster Avenue, which runs out of the city all the way to the country got its name because it was the original route farmers would use to bring in their crops to market. Just like scrapple, saffron (once valued higher than gold on the stock exchange) and other Pennsylvania Dutch goods, soft pretzels made their way down the trade route, into the city and our ancestors’ hearts.
Today, you can find the soft pretzel everywhere in Philly. They’re sold at Miller’s Twist at the Reading Terminal Market, at wholesale baking operations including Center City Pretzel, incongruously located on Washington Avenue in South Philly, at the mobile food trucks that dot the streets of Center City, at 7-11, at Wawa, even at modern restaurants, where chefs such as Jessica Nolen, of Brauhaus Schmitz, bake their own from scratch, and bakeries like Metropolitan Bakery in Rittenhouse, where soft pretzels come studded with fennel seeds. To give you an idea of how pervasive soft pretzels are, Catholic school kids in South Philly are served them at recess.
One relative newcomer to the soft pretzel scene is Philly Pretzel Factory, started by college buddies Dan DiZio and Len Lehman in the Mayfair section of Northeast Philly in 1998. But pretzels go deep into DiZio’s childhood. “Dan’s next-door neighbor owned a bakery, and one day somebody cancelled an order for a thousand pretzels at the last minute,” says Philly Pretzel Factory’s marketing representative, Adam Terranova. A young DiZio saw it as an opportunity and sold those pretzels for his neighbor out on Roosevelt Boulevard, five for a dollar. “For an eleven-year-old in [the 80’s], he made a lot of money and asked the baker, hey can we do this again next weekend?”
Philly Pretzel Factory operates eight flagship locations, with more than 100 more owned by franchise partners from Long Island to Florida. At every location, the promise is: “No pretzel is more than one hour old. With us it’s always about them being hot and fresh from the oven.” That’s something you can really tear into.
FUN FACT: No two soft pretzels are alike, but most follow one of two schools: the loops and the blocks. These are not official pretzel-baking terms. In fact, we just made them up, but they approximate the two most popular shapes into which soft pretzels are formed and which thus create two very different textures in the finished products. The looped pretzels made by Philly Pretzel Factory feature thin loops of dough that leave two large holes on either side of the center knot. The block pretzels made by Center City Pretzel (and its dearly departed forbearer, Federal Baking Co.) are denser, darker, thicker and more geometric, with slit-like holes that look like windows archers would aim through in a medieval castle. These are also harder to find. But no matter the style, one truth is universal: the doughy middle is always the best part.