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When Gary Gottenbusch initially purchased his Cincinnati facility several years ago, the president of Ditsch USA, knew it would eventually house multiple lines. He just didn’t know what type of products the bakery would be running.

In fact, his original plan was to supply soft pretzels to the family’s Servatii Pastry Shop retail bakeries throughout the region — as well as for local supermarkets and outdoor festivals under the Pretzel Baron brand, the original name for the company. He even toyed with making cookies out of the bakery.

“I built this facility with no wholesale customers,” he recalled.

That soon changed as the bakery began serving foodservice distributors, supermarket delis, private label and co-manufacturing clients who were clamoring for the signature Bavarian pretzels.

In 2017, Mr. Gottenbusch sold the company to Valora Group, a Swiss retail holding company that partnered Pretzel Baron with Brezelbäckerei Ditsch GmbH, Germany’s largest pretzel producer, and gave birth to the company’s current name, Ditsch USA.

The Mainz, Germany-based company operates three production bakeries serving more than 200 pretzel shops throughout Germany and beyond. It also ships its frozen dough pretzels internationally throughout Europe and as far away as Japan.

“I was looking for a long-term partner who had the same vision and the capability of growing the company beyond the family’s assets,” Mr. Gottenbusch said. “Baking is so capital-intensive because of the equipment, so you have to make sure you are financially strong so you can survive the ups and downs in a business like we are experiencing today.”

With Mr. Gottenbusch’s master baking background along with the support and guidance from the premier German pretzel company, Ditsch USA branched out with party trays that paired bites and sticks with dips, cheeses and meats. Merchandising, meal-planning and creative deli packaging for every occasion came naturally for Mr. Gottenbusch from his days working directly with consumers for the family’s retail shops.

Together, both bakeries can exchange their products and serve as single-source pretzel providers to their respective markets.

“We have every pretzel option imaginable,” he said. “We make pretzel bites. They make pretzel crust pizza, pretzel croissants, filled pretzels, frozen dough and traditional German products. We’re a one-stop shop for pretzels.”

Sebastian Gooding, chief executive officer of the Ditsch Group, works closely with the U.S. operation and allows it to operate in a decentralized manner.

“Above all, we are united in our passion for great-tasting pretzel products,” he said. “And the new facilities offer Ditsch USA fantastic new opportunities to delight our customers.”

Mr. Gooding noted that the companies also share the same values.

“Our partnership includes sharing expertise on new product development and providing a wide array of support in expanding Ditsch USA’s operation,” he said.

Today, Ditsch USA’s top sellers include Its 2- to 6-oz twists, 0.25- to 3-oz bites and the 1- to 4-oz sticks — up to the size of a small hoagie roll. They can be served at any occasion from Netflix nights to a lunch reprieve from sandwich bread. Moreover, in addition to custom-formulated products, the company can import almost any other type of product from its partner in Germany as well.

“The rise in artisan pretzels is very much like the craft beer movement,” Mr. Gottenbusch said. “It’s so popular, and people want to buy artisan products, but today, they don’t want anyone touching their food. We’re in a good position. We have invested heavily in flowwrapping equipment. We can customize products and packaging that give points of differentiation to our customers to separate them from the competition today and in the long run.”

All this investment didn’t come by accident.

“We installed our first line with the knowledge that the second line would be built,” he said. “The first line was built on the farthest side of the building, and we worked our way backward. Many build their bakeries for their current needs, not for growth. I started with a building three times as large as I thought I needed. Now our customers appreciate the long-term stability this offers them.”

Working with James Goldie, production supervisor, and consulting with experts at Ditsch in Germany, Mr. Gottenbusch designed the new line around the old one, but of course, with a twist.

Specifically, Mr. Goldie insisted on moving backward by starting at the end and moving to the front of production.

“We figured out what we wanted to produce for our packaging capabilities and made the rest of the equipment to feed the packaging, not the opposite way because you’re just chasing your own tail,” he said. “That’s why most bottlenecks are in packaging.”

During the design phase, Mr. Gottenbusch also examined the first production line for any pain points to avoid in the new process.

“We say, ‘better better.’ We want to keep our standards and quality, but each time make the process better,” he said. “Starting with packaging gives us the luxury of speed without sacrificing quality.”

This process allowed Ditsch USA to design the new line with a higher capacity and greater efficiency, even when producing smaller items that have cranberries and a variety of other inclusions.

“We looked for a way to meet the ever-evolving consumer needs with efficient production and scale — and developed a great solution” Mr. Goldie said.

While the conveyors turn back and forth like a pretzel, its production flow remains relatively straightforward, even though the bakery can theoretically make up to 1,000 different products on the versatile line.

"The rise in artisan pretzels is very much like the craft beer movement. It’s so popular, and people want to buy artisan products, but today, they don’t want anyone touching their food."

Gary Gottenbusch, Ditsch USA

Overall, production runs on three shifts, five days a week on either one line or both, depending on scheduling, with full sanitation program on weekends.

Newly installed 100,000-lb Gemini/KB outdoor silos and a sifter supply flour to the bowl charging station, which accurately meters out the ingredient and eliminates bag handling. On the new line, two Sancassiano Genesi/Hydra/Kryos mixers create a wide range of batches of the stiff pretzel dough with jacketed bowls to control the spiral mixing temperatures.

“It’s not craft baking, but we’re definitely not talking about 2-ton batches,” Mr. Gottenbusch noted. “It’s a perfect blend of high-volume automation with an artisan-style process.”

After mixing, an auger discharges the dough from the bottom of the mixer onto a conveyor leading to the hopper of the AMF Tromp no-stress sheeting line. The dough sheet passes through a series of multi-roller reduction stations and a cross-roller and gauging station to create the desired thickness before entering a proprietary dough-forming and cutting process using patent-pending tooling.

“In many ways, it’s fundamentally like my old hand bakery,” Mr. Gottenbusch noted. “Just bigger.”

From here, rows of pretzel sticks or bites enter the AMF multideck proofer with Lillnord air and temperature controls for 25 to 45 minutes, depending on the product variety. To produce pretzels with the proper skin and soft interior texture, Mr. Gottenbusch said, the relative humidity is frontloaded into the beginning of the process with a dryer proofing coming toward the end to form a skin prior to the next step of the process.

The dough pieces then travel into a Reading Bakery Systems (RBS) caustic bath, which determine the color and texture of the final product.

“It’s my personal recipe,” Mr. Gottenbusch said. “We create simple, clean label products that taste great.”

The pretzels bake in an AMF DenBoer oven.

“Working with one manufacturer for the makeup, proofing, caustic bath and baking provided us with a turnkey solution,” Mr. Gottenbusch said of the Markel Food Group, the parent company of AMF Tromp, DenBoer and RBS. “They provided the integrated communication between the components and just one number to call in case there were any issues, and they had the right philosophy for us. We’re craft master bakers looking to efficiently supply the nation with traditional pretzels.”

After ambient cooling, the pretzels travel through a spiral freezer set at -15˚F before metal detection and packaging. Here, the pretzels may enter two vertical form/fill/seal systems, Bettendorf Stanford baggers with Burford twist tyers or flowwrappers before being cartoned, palletized and stored in a freezer.

“Our packaging needs to change daily, based on demand,” Mr. Goldie said.

All mixing allows the operators to document the process for variability and traceability, mainly because most of the pretzels contain only five ingredients — flour, water, yeast, salt, malt — along with a dab of oil. Overall, the bakery is SQF Food Safety and SQF Food Quality certified.

Looking forward, Ditsch USA already plans to add another line and possibly expand production even further. In fact, Mr. Goldie has already drawn up six different versions of potential lines.

“We had hoped to order our third line this year, but all these events may push us back about six to 12 months,” Mr. Gottenbusch said. “And down the line, who knows? We may be looking at another facility within the next three to five years.”

In the meantime, he added, the company is not waiting for opportunity to knock at the bakery’s door. Rather, it’s ready to take on any challenge, no matter what twist of fate comes next. Not surprisingly, he still believes the bakery will top last year in annual revenue.

“Our family’s business always did better in tough times because people wanted to still eat great bakery products,” Mr. Gottenbusch said. “Sure, it is much different this time, but I’m still keeping a positive attitude. We’re growing and making fun products, and we offer a fun place to work. I’m looking at everything as an opportunity to build a team for the future.”

This article is an excerpt from the June 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Ditsch USA, click here.