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Barbara, Tom and Bruce

A Business with a Twist
by Jennifer Post Stoudt

They’re crunchy. They’re salty. They’re great for munching in front of the TV and they make a delicious addition to soups, salads, entrees and as many know, beer.

They come plain, hard, with or without salt, as sticks or nuggets, with cheese or even chocolate. Pretzels have been a favorite snack for approximately 1,390 years.

sturgis truckHere in Reading, Pa., the “Pretzel Capital of the World,” Tom Sturgis ’56, his wife Barbara, son Bruce ’81 and daughter Jill know a thing or two about the art of pretzel baking. In fact, five generations of pretzel baking has made the Sturgis family the “First Family of Pretzels.”

Originating in southern Europe about 610 A.D., the first pretzels were soft pretzels, says Barbara. In fact, bakers used the remnants of the dough from bread, twisted it in the shape of a child’s arms crossed over their chest in prayer and gave them to children as “little rewards,” or pretiola.

Eventually, she says, the name evolved to “pretzels” as they came to America from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In 1861, Julius Sturgis established the first commercial pretzel bakery in America in Lititz, Pa. It was also the first time that crispy, or hard pretzels were developed. At this time, and for at least the next 50 years, all pretzels were made manually. Long wooden paddles, also known as “peels,” were used by the baker and his helper to place the pretzels on a stationary stone or brick hearth in the oven. A wider “peel” was then used to remove the pretzels from the oven.

tom at a machineAfter Julius’s death in 1897, the family continued the pretzel baking tradition, moving back and forth between Lititz and Reading. In 1946 Marriot D. “Tom” Sturgis, grandson to Julius, and known as “Happy” to his grandchildren, founded the Tom Sturgis Pretzel Company. He stayed on with the company until his retirement in 1980, working side-by-side with his son Tom. “We were a team,” Tom says. “He ran the business end and I headed up the mechanical/engineering side of it.”

Today, Tom is chief executive officer; Bruce is president/treasurer; Barbara is vice president; and Jill is secretary. It truly is a “family affair.”

“Carrying the family name and the business along has always felt real good,” says Tom, who graduated from Albright with a degree in physics and mathematics. “I didn’t originally intend to go into the family business,” he says. “I had an offer to work with Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, but I didn’t like the idea of moving away from the area. So, my father said to me, ‘I think you can make a decent living in the business if you’re willing to work,’ so I went with the business.”

Bruce, who majored in business administration says, “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduation.” However, he says he always knew that he’d like to give the family business a shot. “I remember going to the factory with my brother and sister when we were children and climbing on the ovens and bags of salt. We loved to play down there.”

But beginning in seventh grade, the playing stopped and the work began, he says. Bruce spent many summers working for the family business. From mowing the grass to watching the twisting machines, Bruce eventually went on to run the business end of the company. “My degree in business administration from Albright really did help me out.”

Being located in the “Pretzel Capital of the World” has meant that competition from other pretzel makers has always been a challenge.

Since joining his father Tom full time, the family has been cranking out approximately two million pretzels per day, “and we’re a small company,” says Bruce. “We only have 30 to 35 full-time employees.” But, through the years, the business has grown significantly.

The first bakery, says Barbara, was located on Grape Street in Reading, where the current Reading Area Community College is located. “It was a very small place,” Tom says, “so we then moved to Saul’s Court, between Ninth and Tenth Streets on the North side of Reading.” At this location until 1953, the bakery moved once again to 700 Lancaster Avenue and remained there until 1970.

Today, the 75,000-square-foot warehouse and factory is located at 2267 Lancaster Pike in Reading; the giant pretzel in the front of the building serving as a landmark for those who pass by.

bag machineBeing located in the “Pretzel Capital of the World” has meant that competition from other pretzel makers has always been a challenge. Back during the city’s bicentennial, Tom says, pretzel factories were at their peak. There were at least 15 in the Reading/Berks area. “The key to the City of Reading even has a pretzel on it,” says Barbara.

But, adds Bruce, “The competition seems to go in cycles, although the last five years have been the most competitive.” The reason being, he says, “is because the potato chip people have now gone into the pretzel business.”

Another challenge faced by bakers like the Sturgis family are the rising costs of shelf space in grocery stores. “Most of my years in business,” Tom says, “the distributors would fill the shelves for the first time at no charge.” However, in the last 10 to 15 years, he notes, that has changed. Pricing began at approximately $50 a foot per store, and it has now risen to $500 a foot per store. “The only ones who can afford to pay that are the larger companies.” he says. “That has made it very difficult for the majority of bakers.”

But, seeing the need to become more efficient in order to compete with larger companies, the Sturgis’ have been undergoing an expansion, which includes the installment of a third baking line. The expansion is scheduled to be completed by spring 2002. Technically, Bruce says, the expansion could increase production by 100 percent. But, he adds, “we will not sacrifice quality for quantity.”

Bruce’s college friends would agree. “They liked making road trips across Reading to come to the factory,” he says. In fact, “when boarding the bus for away basketball games, Coach Wilbur Renken would always say, ‘Sturgis, where are those pretzels?’”

tom sturgis website

The Art of Pretzel Making

Start with the raw materials: flour, shortening, some malt & yeast, a little bit of salt and water.

After the ingredients are mixed together to make dough, dough is pushed through dies in the extruder. (Dies are steel plates that shape the pretzel. An extruder is a machine that allows the pretzels to be formed and cut. Prior to 1985, most bakers twisted their pretzels.)

Proofing or “raising” then gives the pretzels time to rise.

The pretzels are then cooked and salted while still sticky and wet.

Next, the pretzels are baked in a 500 degree oven for six minutes. (At Sturgis, pretzels are baked on an old fashioned stone hearth.)

Finally, the pretzels are dried at 250 degrees for 45 minutes. The moisture is extracted creating a crunchy, hard pretzel that keeps much longer than its soft counterpart.  

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