Treats with a twist: A tasty tradition is kept alive at Gus’ Pretzel Shop in St. Louis

Sscott bylineThe savory smell of fresh-baked goods wafts over customers the moment they open the door of Gus’ Pretzel Shop in St. Louis’ Benton Park neighborhood. As the patrons wait in line at the counter, they can watch the pretzel-making process through large glass windows that reveal the industrial kitchen.

The shop is just two years shy of its 100th anniversary. Koebbe brothers Gus Jr. and David carry on the legacy, using their grandfather’s original recipe.

“Everybody’s almost family we work so closely together,” said Gus Koebbe Jr., the owner of the shop. “I’m right in here working with people. I don’t really have an office I sit in and dictate what to do.”

p5This morning, four bakers are hard at work mixing ingredients, filling baking sheets and keeping an eye on the batches in the oven. One of them is Gus Jr.’s son Gus III, who joined as an employee in 2008. Today he’s teaching a new hire how to make a batch of dough.

First, 50 pounds of flour goes into the mixer. Water, salt and yeast are added, and then the dough is kneaded for about seven minutes before getting turned out onto a board for its first rise. Once it rises, it’s fed into a machine that slices off portions and rolls them through a moving belt to produce sticks of uniform size.

After that, they’re either arranged on a pan as sticks or hand-twisted into a classic pretzel shape. Following a second rise, they get dipped into a browning solution and slid into the oven on Ferris wheel-style rotating shelves to bake until they reach golden-brown perfection.

p6The final product is chewy on the inside, crispy on the outside and flaked with shiny salt crystals. A whole batch takes only 40 or 45 minutes from start to finish.

“We try to make them fresh throughout the day, so we’re not making them in the morning and then selling them at 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” said Koebbe.

The stick pretzels are the customer favorite.

“We probably do 90, 95 percent sticks,” Koebbe said.

The simple stick shape was originally a marketing tactic during the era when pretzels were sold mainly by street peddlers. Sitting at the bottom of brown paper bags, traditional twists couldn’t be easily displayed. But sticks were tall enough to peek over a bag’s edge, offering a tempting glimpse of the goods inside.

p7.jpgPretzel-wrapped sausages and pretzel bun sandwiches are other big sellers at the shop. Patrons can also buy specialty dips and mustards, and they can custom-order party pretzels that spell out words and dates. St. Louis grocery stores carry Gus’ pretzels in the frozen food section as well.

Koebbe said customers often choose pretzels as fundraiser sellers, wedding reception snacks, and gifts to bring to friends or to business meetings.

“A lot of salesmen come and take them as treats for their clients instead of a doughnut or something,” he said. “It’s just something different to take to people.”

Some historians call the pretzel the world’s oldest snack food. Though origin stories vary, one popular legend has it that in the early 600s, an Italian monk created the pretzel out of leftover dough scraps as a reward for children who had memorized their prayers. The figure-eight shape was meant to resemble a child’s arms crossed in prayer.

The name was derived from the Latin “bracellae,” which means “little arms,” or “pretiolas,” meaning “little rewards.” As the food spread across Europe, it evolved into the “bretzel,” or “pretzel.”

German immigrants brought the pretzel to America, but the first commercial pretzel shop didn’t appear until 1861. Thanks to the prominent German culture in St. Louis, pretzel bakeries were popping up all over the area by the 1900s.

p3Gus’ Pretzel Shop had its start in 1920 when the Koebbes’ grandfather Frank Ramsperger began making pretzels in his basement to support his family after he suffered a work injury as a riveter. Gus Koebbe Sr. married into the family and later became the bakery owner in 1952. He and his wife, Marcella, ran the shop with their seven children, who helped out when they weren’t in school.

In early years, the family business scored a prime location for plenty of customer traffic.

“It just happens my grandfather bought the building next door in 1943. And when they put in Highway 55, they tore all these houses out of here, so we ended up kind of being at the crossroads,” said Koebbe.

The sheer number of customers who come through the doors makes the life of a pretzel-twister surprisingly labor-intensive.

“You almost have to work every day. And be here when people want you to,” said Koebbe. “A lot of people want them at 7 o’clock in the morning, so we’re in here at 4, 5 o’clock in the morning making pretzels.”

Weekends are often peak business times, which is why the bakery is closed only on Mondays.

“When people are partying is when the pretzel business is good. When there are fairs and festivals or school picnics, they buy a lot of pretzels, so you’re working while everybody else is out having a good time,” said Koebbe.

Even when life isn’t a party, pretzels still provide a delicious and affordable pick-me-up.

“I guess you could say pretzels classify as comfort food,” Koebbe said. “When the economy’s down and things are going bad, we usually do better because people come in here and buy a pretzel with their kids.”

And despite the long, early hours, working in the shop definitely has its perks.

“The most fun part is the customers,” Koebbe said. “People come in and you get to kind of know them.”

Those customers are apparently more than happy to spread the word. Gus’ Pretzel Shop has earned a reputation as an iconic St. Louis eatery among regulars and visitors alike.

“It’s just really word-of-mouth. We don’t really advertise or anything like that,” Koebbe said. “From when I took over from my father, I never expected it to have this big a following.”

What will your business look like on its 100th anniversary? Let us know in the comments below.

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