If a company has been making pretzels for 150 years, it likely is doing many things that contribute to its continuing success.
Tom Sturgis Pretzels has a family history that spans all the way back to 1861 in Lititz, Pa. At that time, Julius Sturgis opened the first American commercial pretzel bakery. That same year, Julius Sturgis revolutionized the pretzel industry by developing the first crispy or hard pretzel.
In order to match that success, little has changed from the original pretzel recipe. Tom Sturgis Pretzels has kept the family business thriving by carefully monitoring the quality of its products. From selecting the proper ingredients all the way through the end-drying process, President and Treasurer Bruce Sturgis keeps close tabs on the final product that bears his family name.
The company produces a variety of pretzel products including Dutch, thin stix and logs. In addition, several flavor variations have been added to the line, including chocolate and cheese. Fortunately, pretzels have not been subject to the health issues that fried, high-fat snacks have endured. “Although there are a lot more snacks on the market, pretzels have maintained a pretty good reputation from a health perspective,” Sturgis says. However, the company continues to explore other flavor and texture options and it seeks to further distinguish itself in the marketplace.
In addition to baked-in chocolate pretzels, the company is producing honey graham cookie stix. Other sweet variations include cinnamon sugar sticks. The company’s “Cheesers” line feature baked-in cheddar in small and regular-sized varieties. Hot Cheesers® and Jalapeño Minis offer a mild kick of hot pepper. Some more healthful variations include low-sodium pretzels, whole grain logs and soy pretzels.
Though the manufacturing process has changed over the years, the high level of quality remains unchanged.
“One aspect that definitely distinguishes our products from our competitors is the overall taste of our pretzels,” Sturgis notes.
In addition, specialty flavored pretzels, such as cheese or chocolate, feature ingredients that are baked in, rather than being applied after baking. Sturgis claims that baking in the ingredients helps meld the flavor with the pretzels for an improved taste.
The manufacturing process includes mixing the ingredients, extruding and forming, proofing (or rising), cooking (boiling) and, finally, baking. After baking, pretzels are dried at a lower temperature, then cooled and packed for shipment.
It all starts with the flour, however.
“We have a special setup to blend flours to get the specific mixture we want,” Sturgis says. “We blend a minimum of two flours together for our products– sometimes we’ll combine up to four different flours to ensure we get the best end product.”
The company also provides a longer proofing period that, Sturgis claims, results in a better tasting product. Proofing is the dough rise or final fermentation process that is incorporated into yeast-dough products.
“We incorporate longer proofing times which we feel helps better develop the flavor of our pretzels,” he says.
“The first pretzels were made entirely by hand,” Sturgis claims. “Now, they’re made by a 98 percent automated process.”
To accomplish this, Tom Sturgis Pretzels has been involved in developing its own proofing and baking equipment, geared toward meeting the company’s specific needs without sacrificing quality. The company’s processes therefore are as modern as they come, yet produce results as authentic as pretzels baked one at a time.
“We currently have three baking lines,” he says. “We’ve come up with a relatively modern system that enables us to provide the same qualities as when we were baking entirely by hand.”
Even the ovens are modified to help mimic the old-fashioned flavor. “We have built larger ovens, but we still want the baking qualities that the older ovens gave us,” Sturgis says.
For example, most modern ovens use convection heat. “We like the heat that radiant ovens provide,” Sturgis claims. “Our newest oven was built to be able to provide radiant heat as well as convection.” Although these factors make its pretzels more expensive, Sturgis believes that quality is a more critical factor over price.
Sturgis claims that his employees get to know the operation from start to finish. “Our bakers do everything from mixing to final drying,” he notes. “I believe that to understand the product you have to know what goes into it and follow it through.”
Sturgis says that as the bakers become more accustomed to the process, they will offer suggestions to improve the operation, and many of these suggestions are incorporated into the final process. “Each person picks up a few tricks of his own,” he adds. “I keep my mind open to new or different suggestions from the people on the production line.”
“The most critical factor, to me, is keeping the quality consistent and making the best products we can,” he claims.