Philadelphia is just 100 miles from New York City, but it felt as far as Australia for Leon Kirkland. A native of the City of Brotherly Love living in Brooklyn, all he wanted was a soft pretzel like the ones he grew up eating. “They’re a staple street food in Philly,” he says. “But in New York, street pretzels aren’t so well-loved and seem to mostly be consumed by tourists.” Instead of giving up, he got smart and opened Pelzer’s Pretzels. Its success is not only changing the way that New Yorkers snack, but with plans to go national, the store is adding to Philly’s growing reputation as a foodie destination.
After eight years living in a city without a good soft pretzel, Leon vowed it would not be nine. So on New Year’s Eve 2011, he and his wife, Barella, headed to Google, downloaded a basic recipe, and went to the kitchen.
If this were a Hollywood film, what happened next would be like that scene in Ratatouille where the ingredients combined perfectly and magic was made. Instead, the parchment paper they were baking on baked directly into the dough. At midnight, the couple threw the batch in the garbage and started over. “They were horrible,” Leon admits. “But at least we knew what we were going for: that flavor I remembered from my childhood growing up in South Philadelphia, within walking distance of two of the city’s biggest pretzel bakeries.”
But soon the Kirklands got their happy ending. After much trial and error and making what they consider “every mistake in the book,” they struck soft-pretzel recipe gold. Then, their former super told them that a space that had last been used as a takeout restaurant was for rent in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood–and still equipped. “The moral of the story: Offer your super some coffee when he comes to make repairs, and tip generously at the holidays!” says Leon. As soon as they opened for business in 2012, the neighborhood knew that this was not the average New York soft pretzel, and they started showing up for the decidedly different flavors such as Cran-Mary (cranberry, rosemary, and lemon zest) and their top seller, the Everything, with onion, garlic, and sesame and poppy seeds.
That summer, Pelzer’s Pretzels landed a spot at Smorgasburg, the celebrated destination for top artisanal food vendors. “It was the greatest publicity we could have ever asked for, and from that flowed our first corporate catering orders,” says Leon. Thanks to the website, catering is now the main staple of the business. Yet Barella credits another factor with their success. “New Yorkers love feeling like they’re ‘in the know,’ so customers gleefully talk about us,” says the former beauty-industry marketer. “They take a lot of pride in introducing our products to their network.”
Early success has meant serious time management for the couple. Barella runs day-to-day operations. “That makes me the head baker, chief marketing officer, primary customer service rep, delivery person, and head of product development. I’m probably forgetting a few job titles,” she says. Her husband, a full-time attorney for a global bank, works in the shop on weekends and oversees financial, legal, and tax matters. That means that alone time for the couple usually means sitting on the couch at the end of the night, exhausted. Barella, however, sees an upshot in the arrangement: “I don’t have to schedule a meeting with him to talk business, which means we can make decisions together quickly.”
Currently those discussions are about expansion. They are working towards national distribution through e-commerce and have fielded numerous requests to franchise. They are also looking to stock more beloved Philly foods, including water ice (which any Philadelphian will tell you is not the same as Italian ice). It is an unexpected story of a hometown success–just a bit farther north on the turnpike.