By Matthew Schniper
What’s the deal with these pretzels? Everyone’s freaking out about them.
They’re suddenly all over Facebook threads, with people repeat-ordering dozens and dozens. Comments (effectively product reviews) tend to read like: “Made my 6-year-old’s whole week — they’re her absolute favorite!”; “Oh my goodness. I’m not a huge pretzel lover. I ordered because I want to support local business but dang it was so good”; “… our family can’t stop talking about them, and what you get for what they charge is ridiculous in a good way”; “…the BEST F*ing pretzels I have ever had.”
I remember hearing the name “Mark Anthony’s Pretzels” sporadically over the past many years, most recently last July when Beasts and Brews Chef Noah Siebenaller encouraged me to try the pretzel plate on his menu: He was smothering them in beer cheese and garnishing with bacon bits, sweet peppadews and Cacio Pecora cheese. They were great, just like they are at Phantom Canyon and across the Ivywild School taprooms — Mark Anthony’s Pretzels’ two largest clients, even above Denver spots like Wynkoop Brewing and The Cherry Cricket.
But the reason Mark Anthony’s Pretzels haven’t really become a household name until now is because they’ve never been available direct to households before. Owner and pretzel maker Mark Anthony Bryant has exclusively sold wholesale since 2011, essentially letting chefs at quality spots doll up and take credit for his goods, since most consumers just associate the pretzels with the businesses serving them.
Then came COVID-19, and Bryant says he lost his entire business inside 30 minutes.
“I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do. I spent three days feeling sorry for myself,” he said. Then he asked friends what they thought about him going door-to-door to sell pretzels. He said he’s not unfamiliar with the method: At 19, he took a year “to learn to buy and sell stuff,” including hospital beds to the Amish. He’d drive from his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Texas and beyond to buy items to resell at home. Now, at age 51, he was willing to beat the streets again. But friends advised against surprise house visits to jumpy quarantined folks; instead, they encouraged him to post a flyer on Facebook.
He did, and someone reposted it on the local Culinary Distancing Facebook group page, where he began getting a trickle of 10 to 15 orders a day.
“People were reposting it like crazy,” he said, noting that the day we’re speaking — Easter Monday — he’s been running around personally delivering 35 orders, with 10 orders for the following day already waiting for him on his phone.
(He wasn’t quite ready for this response on the tech side, having customers simply text their orders for him to respond to by evening after he’d run routes. His ordering website is up now, though even through the clunkiness, he continued to garner only praise and referrals.)
“I’ve been working with Mark since my days as chef at Phantom Canyon,” said Siebenaller. “I love his product — the East Coast style — the pretzels are soft and versatile. I’ve used them in all sorts of applications, from slider rolls to croutons. He became an overnight sensation. I love seeing his name now all over Facebook.” Siebenaller added that on future menus when business returns to normal, he won’t just print “pretzels” on his menus, but “Mark Anthony’s Pretzels” because they’re quickly becoming a household name and an understood standard of excellence.
“After their first orders, 75 percent of folks will order more within 24 hours,” said Bryant. “All I have to do is get them to eat my pretzels and I’ll get repeat business.” And people will order more volume each time too, he said, which is easy to do when a dozen runs only $7, with 4-ounce side beer cheese and/or honey mustard ramekins running $2.75 each.
And another sign of community coming together during hardship? People are “tipping like crazy,” he said. He offers $2 delivery (or curbside pickup from noon-1 p.m. weekdays at their kitchen at 2851 Dublin Blvd.) with no minimum order price, and folks are clearly responding from their hearts when they see Bryant’s big smile (under a Wynkoop ball cap the day he delivered to me during a snowstorm) and see his appreciation for their support. One person handed him $60 on a single order of a dozen pretzels. “There’s been days where people are so sweet and nice that I get in the car at the end of the day and cry, because I can’t believe this.”
Bryant said these acts of kindness don’t feel like charity, because he knows he’s working hard for it, putting 3,000 miles on his wife’s car weekly now between dropoffs ranging from Fountain to Monument.
The support has enabled him not only to keep his sole employee/helper working back at their prep kitchen off Dublin and Academy boulevards, but also bring in a consulting chef/helper — his industry friend Bon Hewlett, whom he also sold pretzels to back when Hewlett was exec chef at Phantom Canyon around a decade ago.
Even though Bryant can typically roll more than 2,000 pretzels himself in about four hours — making the dough from an East Coast family recipe with a Burlington, Colorado, flour blend, water, yeast, baking soda and sugar; loading it into a custom cutting machine out of Philadelphia; then hand twisting and tying each pretzel — he can’t do all that and oversee the baking process (fresh daily, no freezers) and drive around town delivering for eight to nine hours daily. So he’s been making adaptations as he goes.
“It’s changing my business model,” he said. “I think I have to go retail now… I want to move on a spot as soon as possible.”
Bryant cited the book “Great by Choice” by Boulder-based researcher Jim Collins; he said it’s essentially a comparison of successful business companies that leveraged bad luck to stay successful. “When things go bad, you’re forced to change with the times,” Bryant said. “This virus I think will change the way everything looks completely. … Right now is the time to seize the day.”
And this stopgap home pretzel delivery is just the beginning. When the dine-in ban eventually lifts, Mark Anthony’s Pretzels’ wholesale business presumably will ramp back up in tandem with restaurant demand. And he wants to continue to provide chefs with a killer pretzel they can serve however they like.
But with a brick-and-mortar retail spot, he envisions a café spotlighting the pretzel in ways he’s enjoyed them (and served them as weekend specials during this pandemic). For example: ham and cheese-stuffed breakfast pretzels, pretzel bun hot dogs, salads with pretzel croutons, pretzel bun sandwiches, cheesecake pretzels, and beer cheese rooster tail pasta with roasted garlic pretzel crostini.
Aikta Marcoulier, executive director of the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center, said they’ve seen businesses pivot “very quickly, across the board,” including all the restaurants that ramped up to pickup and delivery models from primarily sit-down service, but also retail shops and individuals like artists now selling online.
“I haven’t seen a business blow up quite like him,” she said, “but everyone’s shifting because they have to.”
She can’t offhand think of any particular pitfalls to moving from wholesale to a retail focus in this case or any other, but she cautions there’s preparation involved in a model change — different accounting and bookkeeping on the back end as well as new marketing strategies on the community-facing side, for example.
And, with brick-and-mortar comes everything from more involved food-safety protocols to permitting and perhaps a second rent. Basically, all the responsibilities inherent to something much more complex than pretzels delivered to your door.
Remembering now just how good these pretzels are as we dip toaster oven-warmed braids into the sweet and stinging honey mustard and fabulous beer cheese dip (made with chicken stock, cream, blended cheeses and Bristol Brewing’s Laughing Lab beer) I can only imagine a pretzel spot in town driven by Bryant’s passion would do well. (Aside from being astounding entrepreneurship that it could launch during the hardest of times.)
The preservative-free pretzels alone are vegan, which could elicit a whole other fan base, too. In describing them, Bryant differentiated them from German-style pretzels that use lye instead of baking soda, which results in a “dark mahogany” coloring, whereas his are “more golden brown and buttery.” Additionally, his aren’t as firm and tough on the tooth, but “soft and chewy” by easiest description, as chef Siebenaller said. There’s no need to complicate such simple treats with highfalutin language.
Bryant likes to believe that many years in the future, a lot of people around Colorado Springs will reflect on this crazy, scary coronavirus time and — much like we remember where we were and what we were doing on 9/11 or when JFK was shot — amidst memories of hardship and sacrifices, they’ll also recall eating dozens of delightful doughy pretzels.
Twisted and bound as they are, an edible overlapped ouroboros of sorts, perhaps pretzels are the perfect symbol of today’s times. Just as in life, in business too there is death, and sometimes joyous rebirth. And, if we are so lucky: beer cheese baptisms.