Pretzel Baron: Mastering a new mindset

by Dan Malovany
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When I first met Gary Gottenbusch five years ago, he was a winner, actually a champion. He won the top prize in the California Raisin Board’s America’s Best Raisin Bread contest for his raisin walnut pretzels. What I didn’t know about Gary then was that he was a master retail baker with wholesale ambitions. He wanted to take the best of his family recipes — authentic German artisan pretzels — and combine the craft of baking with the best practices and the latest in technology that commercial baking offers.

Actually, Gary and his brother Greg have been blending retail and wholesale baking for some time. The family’s 40,000-sq-ft commissary now supplies custom-made, fresh-baked goods each morning for the 14 Servatii Pastry bakeries throughout Cincinnati, relying on the efficiencies of the centralized operation to keep retail baking alive and well in southern Ohio.

Scaling up and automating soft pretzels — which along with cookies account for 35% of the company’s sales — made sense in more ways than one. In addition to lowering production costs, moving these two products to a separate facility would free up space in the cramped central commissary. Moreover, it would allow the company to expand geographically.

With the opening of its 84,000-sq-ft plant in northern Cincinnati, Pretzel Baron — the new business with a more apt German brand name — was born. While Greg takes care of the retail business, Gary focuses on wholesale. With roots in retail baking, Gary is now melding his craft mentality with the mindset of a commercial operator. That has meant applying the best practices of food safety, food security, traceability and everything else that’s required under the plethora of regulations to be a successful wholesaler in today’s world.

While Gary had a pool of talented bakers working in the family’s retail shops, he chose to hire unskilled operators and train them in the philosophy of wholesale production and statistical process control. Besides, he didn’t have to break “bad habits” that craft bakers might have acquired from years of taking a hands-on approach to dough.

At the same time, Gary “trained” the technology to take on the art of baking. Specifically, he personally worked with a European equipment company to program the pretzel twisting machines to mimic what he can deftly do by hand — except 100 times faster.

But, as everyone knows, technology isn’t perfect, even if it has been taught by a master baker. It requires a lot of adjusting and fine tuning, especially during the startup of the operation and even today as the line changes over from one product to another. In fact, during our visit to his bakery, I caught Gary a few times reaching over the line, re-twisting an imperfect pretzel string into proper form.

In his own way, he was telling technology to step up its game. It was a classic example of mastering both the art and the science of baking.

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