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Pretzel Maker Rolling in Dough : Oat bran fad helps oldest bakery in U.S. to its best year.

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

This picturesque and historic Lancaster County town, dotted with pre-Revolutionary War homes, stores, churches and inns, is the birthplace of America’s pretzel industry.

The original pretzel factory--still operating despite more than two centuries of wear and tear--costs $1 to visit. For the dollar, you get a pretzel, which is your admission ticket; once in, you eat the ticket.

Julius Sturgis established the nation’s first pretzel bakery in 1861, converting the family’s old general bakery, and it has remained in the family since. The Sturgis Pretzel House is a quaint stone building--built in 1774 as a home with a connecting bakery--now used as the company’s headquarters and bakery.

“For the first 87 years,” said Clyde Tshudy, 51, who bought the company in 1972, “the huge brick ovens were used to bake bread. Then in 1861, Julius Sturgis, a cousin--we have a common grandfather going way back--began the first pretzel bakery in this country. He used the brick ovens built by my great-great-great-grandfather.”

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He added that he is still using the gas-fired, 215-year-old brick and clay ovens to bake soft pretzels.

The company makes a variety of pretzels, soft and hard, salted and unsalted (called baldies), pretzels shaped like the horse and buggy rigs used by Lancaster County’s Amish people, tiny pretzels the size of a quarter, giant-size pretzels, cheese pretzels, oat bran and whole-wheat pretzels, left-handed pretzels (with the twist running in the opposite direction) and many others.

“People have been going nuts lately for oat bran pretzels,” Tshudy said. “We can’t make enough of them. Oat bran pretzels are a health kick fad.”

Tshudy; his wife, Barbara; son, Michael; daughter-in-law, Holly, and a dozen others work part time and full time at the pretzel factory, which produces 10,000 pounds of the snacks a day.

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Last year’s sales totaled $650,000, the biggest in the company’s 128-year history, Tshudy said, with mail orders and retail sales at the factory representing 10% of the production. The rest was wholesaled to stores and other outlets as far away as Miami.

The U.S. pretzel industry recorded an all-time high in sales last year--$430 million--according to Jane Wuerthner, spokeswoman for the Snack Food Assn., headquartered in Alexandria, Va. And that does not count sales by mom-and-pop pretzel makers around the country.

The pretzel’s traditional twisted design--with its three holes in the middle--has been traced to a monastery in southern France in AD 1610 and is said to represent arms folded in prayer.

Until the early 1950s, the twists and turns of Sturgis pretzels were all made by hand. The company then employed 30 twisters and eight bakers, turning out 3,000 pounds of pretzels a day.

“Lewis Sturgis, one of Julius Sturgis’ eight sons, had been running the company for years,” Clyde Tshudy recalled. “He was reluctant about converting to pretzel-making machines and didn’t think anyone would eat a pretzel made by a machine. But he finally came around.” And just recently the company installed a new $400,000 machine to shape and bake its hard pretzels.

The old craft lives on, however. Each visitor to the plant--about 50,000 each year--is shown how to twist pretzels by hand.


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