Pretzel giants vie for snacking dough

August 14, 1994|By David Conn | David Conn,Sun Staff Writer

A battle for supremacy is being waged in the hills north of Baltimore. And victory is measured one pretzel at a time.

The biggest players are Rold Gold, whose newest munitions plant is a one-year-old pretzel factory in Aberdeen; and Snyder's of Hanover Inc., the 70-year-old venerable house of pretzel.

Snyder's still makes the best-selling pretzel in the nation, the hard sourdough known affectionately as the beer pretzel.

But its pretzel hegemony has weakened. Rold Gold, made by Dallas-based Frito-Lay Inc., which is a division of PepsiCo Inc., this year surpassed the Pennsylvania company for overall pretzel sales. That includes everything from the hard sourdough to thin pretzels, pretzel sticks, pretzel chips, flavored pretzel bits -- you name it.

It's fitting that Philadelphia and Baltimore, which happen to be the country's first and second biggest consumers of pretzels, should mark the boundaries of this battle.

But the boom in pretzels goes far beyond the traditional stronghold of the mid-Atlantic; sales are up across the nation. The pretzel craze has been fired by consumers' growing demand for a healthy snack food, an aggressive national ad campaign, and a host of daring new twists on an old theme.

Since 1991, pretzels have been by far the fastest-growing segment of the nearly $15 billion snack food industry. Last year, for the first time, pretzel sales passed $1 billion.

With stakes that high, it's not surprising that some of the companies treat their product information like state secrets.

"Snyder's would love to know how many pounds" of pretzels are produced in Aberdeen, said Lynn Markley, a Frito-Lay spokeswoman in Dallas. She wouldn't even give a hint. Nor would she allow a tour of the 100-employee Harford County plant, not without precautions. "We want to open up our doors to you," she said, "but for proprietary reasons . . ."

John T. Lucas, human resources director at Snyder's of Hanover, was a bit more welcoming. In fact, he got a childlike gleam in his eye as he donned a hair net and gingerly led a visitor across the slippery floors of the pretzel bakery.

Inside, the air was thick with the yeasty perfume of freshly mixed sourdough. Mr. Lucas proudly displayed the automated pretzel-twisting machines, their tiny robotic arms endlessly folding and refolding the thin tubes of white dough. And he led the way as armies of uncooked pretzels march lemming-like on a conveyor belt through caustic soda baths, salt showers and long ovens that brown them and bake them jaw-breaking hard, inside and out.

But as much pleasure as Mr. Lucas takes in showing off the place -- even pilfering a piping hot pretzel or two right off the line -- there are some things he too won't reveal, like pounds of flour used, recipes, profits. That would play into the hands of the enemy.

"Pretzel baking is a bit of an art, a bit of a science," he explained cryptically. "The science part of it I think everyone understands. The art, I think, some companies would want to keep to themselves."

Snyder's doesn't have to search for adversaries: First and foremost, of course, is the formidable Rold Gold. But in Milwaukee, Anheuser-Busch's Eagle Snacks division has launched a strong affront; and in New York, RJR Nabisco Holdings practically mocks the health-conscious with a longtime product called Mister Salty.

Tiny Hanover itself and the surrounding Pennsylvania Dutch towns are home to so many old-time "pretzel benders" that the area is America's undisputed, if unofficial, pretzel belt. The region boasts about a baker's dozen of smaller competitors, such as Utz Quality Foods Inc. and Herr Foods Inc., which have expanded beyond their potato chip origins.

Sociologists can theorize about the causes of pretzelmania in the Baltimore-Philly corridor. They can assert that pretzels are the ultimate blue-collar, beer drinker's snack. Or they can pontificate about the food's origins, among fifth-century French and Italian monks who were said to twist the dough in tribute to the arms of praying children.

Long a mid-Atlantic specialty, pretzels today account for only 7.5 percent of all snack food purchases (the eighth best-selling type of snack). Yet they racked up a remarkable 25 percent sales increase last year to $1.1 billion, according to the Snack Food Association, in Alexandria, Va.

That was nearly twice the gain touted by tortilla chips, the second-largest (and second-hottest) category. Reliable old potato chips, still the granddaddy of snack food with $4.7 billion in sales, saw only a 4 percent increase last year.

"Pretzels have seen double digit growth pretty much over the last three or four years," said Jane Schultz of the Snack Food Association. "And that's in large part because of their reputation as a low-fat healthy snack."

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