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Baking the Perfect Pretzel - Ann Benzel



By Jennifer McGuiggan, Communications Coordinator

Ann Benzel, President and Owner of Benzel's Pretzel Bakery (www.benzels.com), says that "the pretzel itself" was the largest obstacle she's overcome in business. But, she admits, "this wasn't my barrier."

Before low-fat diets were all the rage, "it was bring on the grease" when it came to snack foods, says Benzel. "The pretzel was the Pennsylvania Dutch snack." But when healthy eating came into vogue, the pretzel gained public-appeal and has continued to make Benzel's Bakery a success.

A young German immigrant named Adolph Benzel founded Benzel's Bakery over 90 years ago in Altoona, PA. The company continues to use his exact recipe in the production of almost 50 million pretzels daily. Still family owned, Benzel's Bakery is one of the most modern pretzel bakeries in the world. While the original product may be an old-world classic, Benzel's has managed to stay current by introducing new products such as oat bran and soy pretzels.

Benzel says that they try to "stay one step ahead" and anticipate "what will be hot and what will be not." Three years ago they introduced the soy pretzel and were the first to introduce the oat bran pretzel before that. "Soy is really coming into play and oat bran never really lost it," Benzel says proudly.

Benzel also notes that pretzels are an acceptable part of most low-fat diets, and she loves to hear from people who say they've lost ten to fifteen pounds eating pretzels. She jokes, "I've gained ten to fifteen pounds eating pretzels!"

According to BBC News and HungryMonster.com, annual U.S. pretzel sales top $180 million and are the second most popular snack, behind potato chips and just in front of popcorn. By the time Benzel became President and Owner of Benzel's Bakery in 2001, the pretzel was a hot commodity and she had over 25 years experience to fully appreciate the business.

Benzel began working at the bakery part-time to help start a holiday mail-order businesses. "We thought it might be a real asset to us," she says. "I blindly started this [mail-order project] with a typewriter and a roll of UPS labels." The mail-order idea quickly grew to be a full-time entity and Benzel herself moved from part to full-time after three years at the company. Benzel's continues to offer mail-order services by accepting orders via mail, phone, fax and online.

Before assuming her current leadership role, Benzel says she worked in practically every department, and took on management positions for both the retail store and offices. Because she saw the business from the bottom up and had such broad experience, she says, "it was really an easy transition" to president.

She also had a good teacher, she says. Her husband Bill was the former president of Benzel's, and grandson to founder Adolph Benzel. Bill had been involved with the business from a very young age and finally decided that he wanted to do something else. He turned the business over to his wife, who says, "He trained me well."

With only a high school degree, Benzel says, "my experience and education have really been on the job. In all honesty, nothing could have prepared me for it as well as being here."

Her hands-on education has paid off. In 2001 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania recognized Benzel as one of the Best 50 Women in Business. Benzel's Bakery has been named Outstanding Business of the Year by the Altoona-Blair County Development Corporation and Distinguished Family Business of the Year by Indiana University of Pennsylvania's Eberly College of Business and Information Technology.

The hard work associated with a running a family-owned business doesn't faze Benzel. "When it's a family business it seems it never gets puts away," she admits. "You don't punch out at 5:00."

"I like what I'm doing and I love doing what I do; and I wouldn't change a thing," says Benzel enthusiastically. Along with loving her job, she credits her strong work ethic and positive outlook as the basis to her business philosophy. "Someone recently said to me that I'm such an optimist, and I guess I am." In the end, she believes that there is "no obstacle that can't be overcome."

As a woman business owner, Benzel believes that women are judged on performance today, not on gender. "Probably had I come into this position even ten years ago, it might have been more sexist, but I honestly think that woman have to overcome the fear factor," she says. She encourages women in business to have the courage to move forward no matter what.

Benzel finds time to pursue her other interests by volunteering with a variety of organizations. She's the Chairperson of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Chairman of the Mishler Theatre restoration project, and a member of the following boards of directors: the Altoona-Blair County Development Corporation, First Commonwealth Bank, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, the Blair County Arts Foundation, and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

Benzel's years of experience as an employee of the company she now leads informs the way she regards her employees. The best advice she's ever received, she says, is "to get out of the office and see what is really going on in your business. I need to know and understand the challenges my employees are up against."

And she's proud of those employees. "We have 105 top-notch, dedicated employees who manufacture a quality product that has really taken us from a regional business to a national [one], and now to a global focus." She credits the people who work for Benzel's with the success of the company. "It's not that I've done this on my own," she says.

Even though the Benzel pretzel recipe hasn't changed since 1911, technology has changed the business "greatly in every single aspect," Benzel says. And while the mixes are now automated and the product is "almost untouched by human hands," it's still extremely complicated to create perfect pretzels. As production has increased over the past several years, Benzel remains amazed by what does and does not affect the recipes, noting that everything from the grain crop to humidity and temperature play a part in the process.

Despite Benzel's forward thinking approach to pretzels, she remains true to its roots as a family business. "I know a lot of executives have visions of how they want their companies to be different in the future, and I'd certainly love to increase our market share ? [and] be a big fish in a little sea." But, she says, "I hope we never lose our small company spirit."

The Benzel staff invites you to join them at Benzel's Factory Outlet Store in Altoona, Pennsylvania to spend a leisurely moment admiring their beautiful flower gardens or snap a few photos in front of their "authentic" caboose. While there, sample a variety of pretzels baked fresh daily on the premises and treat yourself or take home gifts for family and friends. You can also order Benzel's products online at www.benzels.com.

Sources:
"Bush makes light of pretzel scare." BBC News Americas. 14 Jan. 2002. BBC News.2 May 2003 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/1758848.stm.

"The history of pretzels." Hungry Monster. 2 May 2003 www.hungrymonster.com/FoodFacts/Food_Facts.cfm?Phrase_vch=Breads&fid=5918.

May 2003

 
 
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