In Philadelphia, it's down-right civilized and American to eat soft pretzels with hot mustard.
But in Mission Viejo, the favorite topping for the same pretzel is Cheddar cheese, nacho cheese, cream cheese, pizza, fudge and strawberries.
"I think Californians are interested in anything," observed Peggy Papale, director of marketing for Hot Sam Pretzels, the Tampa company that has invaded the West with one of the East Coast's favorite snack foods.
'Just Right for Californians'
"We thought it would be just right for Californians who spend so much time in shopping malls and seem to live on snack foods," she said. "The pretzels are really filling and easy to eat while you're walking."
The 10 Hot Sam outlets in California--five in the Southland and five in Northern California--are all in shopping centers or malls, some of them in kiosks. By comparison, Detroit alone has 20 Hot Sam pretzel outlets.
Papale believes the next moves will be to Hawaii and Japan.
The company doesn't release sales figures for the 175 company-owned stores it operates nationwide, but President Randolph Herman said, "It's anywhere between $30 million and $50 million a year."
The entire soft and hard pretzel industry accounts for about $155 million in sales a year, with the hard pretzels the dominant seller, reports Paul Flanagan, president of the National Pretzel Bakers Institute in Lancaster, Pa.
"We just don't have a breakdown on what the split is, but we know that hard pretzels are sold almost everywhere while the soft pretzels are more popular in the East," Flanagan said. "We also know the soft pretzel is becoming a growing segment of the snack food market." He noted that shopping malls "are becoming the place for people to congregate and buy snack foods. In the East, they used to get it from a street vendor, but the mall is going to be the next generation to the street vendor."
Although Hot Sam is strongest in the East and Midwest, "our strategy is to expand in the Western states, especially in California, where we hope to put a store in every major mall." Hot Sam also operates in Colorado and Arizona.
Herman said the company is attempting to get "the same name recognition we have in Detroit, where people don't ask for a soft pretzel, they ask for a Hot Sam."
Started in Detroit
A subsidiary of General Host Corp., the Stamford, Conn., company that also operates Hickory Farms, Hot Sam began in Detroit in 1967 and like many East Coast pretzel firms began prospering through word of mouth from pretzel connoisseurs.
"What is hard to believe sometimes," said Herman, "is to see people order two of our fudge-topped pretzels and ask for a diet drink."
The company notes that a Hot Sam without a topping has 160 calories and 220 with a topping.
The pretzel purist, said Herman, "still believes the only way to eat one of them is to cover it with mustard, but tastes are changing and our six toppings are selling quite well, even in the East."
Deborah Price, manager of the cubby hole Hot Sam store in the Mission Viejo shopping mall, said the 2-year-old store "is starting to get shoppers as repeat customers. They're finding that the pretzel fills them up without slowing them down when they're shopping."
She said her store sells "anywhere between 300 and 1,000" a day; a greater number is sold during the height of the Christmas shopping season.
The pre-baked pretzel, made by J. & J. Snack Foods of Los Angeles, consists of flour, corn syrup, yeast and water and is flash frozen. Individual stores bake the pretzel fresh "the old-fashioned" way in stoves that take 16 minutes to cook them on revolving drums.
"There are ovens that can cook them faster, but the company feels that cooking them slower in the old-fashioned way makes them taste better," said John Shiavo, general manager of the snack food company that makes 18 million frozen pretzels a year for all Hot Sam stores throughout the country.