“I like the Jalapeño Cheddar with the Pale Ale,” a Kansas City, MO-area chef said to a room of his peers.

“My favorite is the Rosemary Potato with Single-Wide IPA,” another piped up. Everyone agreed the Ham and Cheese Pretzel Croissant was missing nothing, but they couldn’t reach a consensus on the right beer accompaniment.

The scene unfolded at Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City. In a small tasting room down a labyrinthine series of corridors under the working brewery, the air was heady with hops and the salty brine of pretzels. A dozen or so local chefs gathered to sample different varieties of beer along with several experimental items baked by Farm to Market Bread Co.

The Kansas City artisan bakery increasingly relies on its food service relationships to drive revenue. “Most of our business right now is from restaurants,” said Mark Friend, Farm to Market president. “Everybody wants something for their sandwiches in different shapes — hot dogs, hamburgers, small rolls and large rolls.”

For the tasting, Mr. Friend and Lindsay Borum, Farm to Market’s director of sales, provided what could be described as an evolutionary study of the pretzel — from traditional twists to croissants treated with the pretzel-style caustic bath. Tasting participants tested the pretzels’ ability to pair with Boulevard’s beers as well as gourmet sauces, including peach coriander mustard, mushroom tarragon duxelles and blue cheese aioli.

To highlight the pure pretzel taste, Farm to Market offered its products in plain styles, salted or unsalted. But the bakery also brought to the table pretzel rolls enhanced with lime zest or orange zest with coriander, sticks infused with Kalamata olives or wasabi with sesame and ginger, and flatbread-style pretzel breads with mozzarella, blue cheese or Parmesan.

A pretzel stick stuffed with dark chocolate and paired with Boulevard’s Sixth Glass Belgian dark strong ale ranked among the favorite combinations in the room.

The area chefs weren’t shy about giving Mr. Friend suggestions and opinions on how to improve the pretzels and offer food service customers more flexibility. Armed with a sheaf of mental notes, Mr. Friend and Ms. Borum returned to the bakery to fine-tune Farm to Market’s pretzel-style offerings.

When asked what he looks for in a pretzel roll, Alex Pope, co-owner of Kansas City-based butcher shop Local Pig and chef at pop-up restaurant Vagabond, stressed that the crust should have a slick mouthfeel and the crumb should be as soft as possible. “I like that bitter alkaline flavor from the lye, and a touch of yeast is good, too,” he said. “The best part of pretzel buns is, if you get a really juicy burger or piece of meat, the moisture doesn’t bleed through the bun.”

An upscale option

The phenomenon of replacing traditional buns with pretzel breads on menus is certainly gaining steam. Throughout 2011, the number of mentions of pretzel breads on menus almost doubled, according to the December 2011 MenuMonitor from Technomic, Inc., a restaurant industry research firm based in Chicago, IL. “It’s still small compared with buns, tortillas and hoagie rolls,” said Melinda Champion, vice-president, marketing, J&J Snack Foods, Pennsauken, NJ. But it’s clear the market is growing.

“I think the whole ‘better burger’ movement we’ve seen over the past few years has helped the development of more upscale and interesting buns,” said Brian Miller, president, Miller Baking Co., Milwaukee, WI, whose Pretzilla brand pretzel buns are available in burger, hot dog or mini sizes for food service customers and retail outlets. “I like to say that our Pretzilla soft pretzel buns are the best supporting actor to the proteins. It’s catching on with consumers too, because they look so different than traditional white or egg-colored buns. The eye appeal makes people curious and, hopefully, leads to them purchasing.”

Better Bakery Co., Valencia, CA, has relied on that eye appeal since the early 1990s, when, according to President Josh Schreider, 75% of the country’s soft pretzel consumption was in the tri-state Philadelphia, PA, area. The company brought the East Coast pretzel craze to the West Coast, primarily with movie theater pretzels, which Mr. Schreider described as “an impulse item.” He explained, “Our best sales tool is having those display cases on the counter.”

More recently, the company’s adapted its line to the growing pretzel bun trend. “Starting two or three years ago, we began to see small pretzel rolls and mini buns for sliders or just for bread baskets at restaurants,” Mr. Schreider said. “Now, more restaurants are going with that or soft pretzel sticks to be used as a breadstick.”

Better Bakery’s newest entry into the pretzel market is a series of infused pretzels with the flavors baked into the pretzel dough. Varieties include the Pesto Pretzel with a butter Parmesan topping; Pizza Pretzel with a combination of tomato sauces, herbs and spices topped with fresh mozzarella and pepperoni; Asiago Pretzel with a blend of three cheeses; and Bacon Cheddar. The company is also experimenting with a cinnamon sugar variety with cinnamon pellets in the dough to create pockets of flavor within the pretzel.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we had four different pretzel items,” Mr. Schreider said. “Now, we have a dozen really differentiated items. Nuggets, rods, twists, sandwiches, buns — the whole nine yards.”

J&J Snack Foods, which has provided pretzel buns to its food service customers for several years, differentiates itself from its competition by the sheer volume of options it offers, according to Ms. Champion. Varieties include hamburger-sized, medium-sized and slider-sized buns; hot dog buns; Bavarian twists for appetizers; pretzel rolls with twists on top; Coburg rolls; and small and large twists, including a monstrous 24-oz soft pretzel.

“If a customer came to us and said, ‘We really want giant braids that are shareable,’ we could do that,” Ms. Champion said. “If they said, ‘We want teeny little popper bites,’ we could do that. We’re incredibly flexible with our manufacturing and are very customer-focused. We really go in as your pretzel solution provider.”

Flexibility also served Labriola Baking Co., Alsip, IL, which has produced pretzel breads for 12-plus years, according to Rich Labriola, owner and chief dough boy. The company does hamburger buns, demis, hinged demis, dinner rolls, pretzel baguettes, breadsticks, bâtards, pretzel croissants and cinnamon chip pretzel rolls.

“Pretzels have been around forever, and bread’s been around forever. It’s really just taking two things and slapping them together to make one even better thing,” Mr. Labriola said. “Once you have a hamburger on pretzel bread, not much else compares.”

The time is now

Given that both pretzels and breads have been around that long, some speculation exists as to why their hybrid is gaining momentum now.

“While soft pretzel buns are a relatively new phenomenon, the fact is pretzels have been part of Americana for generations,” Mr. Miller said. “Almost everyone has a positive connection with pretzels from early childhood on — enjoying a twisted pretzel at a ballpark, movie theater, amusement park or while having a beer with family and friends. Soft pretzel buns are just an updated extension of Americans’ emotional connection with pretzels.”

Besides the allure of pretzels, recent advances in automation have fostered the pretzel proliferation. Pretzel traditionalists agree that the caustic lye bath is a crucial part of making a pretzel, but handling sodium hydroxide, even at the usual 0.5% concentration of commercial production, presents work hazards above and beyond those usually found in wholesale bakery operations.

“We started with a very labor-intensive manual caustic-dip operation,” said John Updegraff, vice-president, national sales, Highland Baking Co., Northbrook, IL. “It’s taken a lot to commercialize that process to give faster throughput and get the cost down so more people could put [pretzel breads] on menus.”

According to Ms. Champion, pretzel breads started showing up on menus a couple of years ago as an upscale alternative to hamburger and hot dog buns. As a trend catches on in white-tablecloth restaurants, she explained, it works its way down to casual dining and into quick-service establishments, where it achieves mainstream acceptance and starts appearing on grocery shelves.

“It’s how foods work their way down the acceptance ladder of exposure,” Ms. Champion said. “When [a trend] starts at a fine-dining restaurant, there aren’t a lot of people exposed to it. As it gets bigger and bigger, more and more people are exposed and start to demand it.”

Pretzelizing the world

Even when a concept is steeped in tradition, consumers tend to demand new twists to satisfy their cravings for something different. “I’d like to pretzelize the world,” Mr. Labriola said. “When pretzel rolls start to plateau a little bit, then we’ll try to introduce something new to keep the interest going.”

Staying ahead of the curve is always a challenge in the baking industry. “Right now, we have enough on the table to just do what we’re doing,” Mr. Schreider said. “We’re getting the rolls out now, and I think that’s going to be the next five years. What you’re seeing here and there will be pervasive throughout society in another two or three years.”

For Mr. Updegraff, the future is small. “We’ll see a lot more demand for things that are appetizer-related,” he said. “More people are starting to use [pretzel breads] either for bar foods or pure appetizer applications.”

Beyond that, he said the company will continue to pretzelize its other bread offerings. “We hear a lot of calls for inclusions in our regular dough bases that are jalapeño or chipotle with some heat,” Mr. Updegraff said. “It wouldn’t be much of a stretch for people to start asking us to then take that basic dough and apply the pretzel process to it, so they have a pretzel product that has heat in the dough.”

J&J Snack Foods is keeping an eye on flavors like ranch, salsa and jalapeño as they crop up in snack foods. “We’re constantly monitoring that salty snack aisle to see what kind of flavors are evolving there and looking at how that would fit in the land of pretzels,” Ms. Champion said. “But also, even if we don’t have a customized pretzel, we look at how we can give our customers serving suggestions using those trending flavors.”

Through its work with local chefs and restaurants, Farm to Market discovered that the savory notes of pretzel breads pair well with the sweetness of pork products. “People love it,” Ms. Borum said. “A new restaurant is using our pretzel hot dog buns for all of its sausages.” With more than 1,000 doz buns a week going to that restaurant alone, the bakery is confident the trend will be around for years to come.

“The possibilities with pretzel breads are just endless — shapes, sizes, flavors,” Mr. Labriola said. “The key is, before anyone starts making it, can you be the first one out with it?”

One thing is clear: Whichever company is first to market with the next big thing in pretzel breads, it won’t be alone for long.