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Startup with a twist: Pretzel company emerges from county business incubator
By Jason Lesley
When Bob and Caryl Browner served their homemade pretzels at parties, guests would say they should start a business. There could be dough in this dough, so they began selling homemade pretzels to restaurants and food truck operators.
Finally, the Browners took the plunge, sold their house in Cary, N.C., moved to Pawleys Island and opened ElJay Pretzels in the Litchfield Exchange. After some early research and development, the couple’s pretzel bakery is positioned for growth. Lowes Foods is selling the Browners’ pretzels in 13 stores along the Carolina coast, and two of their products will be sold at Coastal Carolina University football games starting Sept. 10.
ElJay Pretzels — the business is named for the Browner children Lauren and Josh — has outgrown two kitchens already and moved into a well-equipped 2,000 square foot space in the Litchfield Exchange. Caryl said she started making pretzels as a three-month experiment in the kitchen at her church, Pawleys Island Community Church, even though Bob is the baker in the family. They found a niche in upscale golf course grill rooms like Caledonia and Wachesaw East and restaurant bars like Ship’s Pub and Southern Comforts. With that encouragement, the Browners moved into a small space at Litchfield Exchange while Bob kept his job at the Fresh Market bakery. When StartUp.SC, the county’s business incubator, moved to a smaller space across the hall, the Browners’ pretzel business was ready for a much larger and more visible location with commercial equipment and moved up front in the exchange. They remain strictly wholesale and have to turn prospective retail customers away from their kitchen with directions to Lowes Foods down the road.
“We went into this kitchen because we wanted to bake them ourselves,” Caryl said. “We can make up to 20,000 pretzels a day with the new rolling machine, though we are not utilizing it now. It gives us capacity to produce more. We are in growth mode, considering we opened the first kitchen Nov. 1 and we’re in here in six months.”
Their next step is to provide fresh pretzels for the bakeries in all 80 Lowes Foods stores. “We are still working our way up the coast. We just added five more stores in Wilmington,” Caryl said. “It’s the beginning of football season. I expect sales are going to go up.”
Lowes Foods in Pawleys Island was one of the first stores in the chain to try ElJay Pretzels. Delivered frozen, the pretzels are thawed, warmed in an oven and sold in packs of three or four. Customers can also buy pretzels frozen and heat them at home in an oven or, like Island Bar and Grill, flash fry them in vegetable oil. BisQit in the Hammock Shops and Island Treats at the Island Shops have added pretzels to their menus. Bob says a thick round pretzel makes a good sandwich bun, too.
Coastal Carolina invited the Browners to sell baskets of pretzel bites with a cheese dip under their own tent at football games while it sells ElJay twisted pretzels at concession stands. They are constantly finding new ways to serve them. “We love that,” Carol said.
One grocery’s bakery rolls them in sugar, and another adds a sweet drizzle, like a cinnamon bun. Moe’s Original Barbecue sprinkles its spicy barbecue rub on the pretzels and serves them with white “Alabama sauce.” Bob plans on slicing pretzel sticks into small round pieces, brushing on some olive oil and baking them into chips. They would have the consistency of croutons, he said, and allow for all sorts of dipping.
The ElJay Pretzel is soft, more like bread, thanks to Bob’s secret recipe. He says the difference in a pretzel and a bagel is that bagel dough is plunged into hot water for a few minutes to give it a tough skin; pretzel dough is dipped into soda water, giving it a golden brown shell when baked. Occasionally, he says, he gets an albino pretzel that didn’t get dipped long enough.
Their process is almost exclusively done by hand now. Business has picked up to the point the Browners hired another baker, Becky Wolma, but they don’t use the pretzel machine very often even though there is plenty of time to stay organized on the assembly line.
The dough for the machine is freshly mixed and has to be given about 45 minutes after extrusion to rise on trays before twisting and baking. It’s still fast. The machine can do in 20 minutes what takes the bakers about three hours to do. It will keep the baking in-house for the foreseeable future, allowing Bob to work in the kitchen and Caryl to focus on sales and marketing.
They were both working in the telecommunications business when they met and married in Dayton, Ohio. They moved to Cary, N.C., for better jobs. Caryl joined SAS Communications as a strategist for worldwide marketing, and Bob became an entrepreneur. Events seemed to unfold like a road map to Pawleys Island, their favorite vacation destination. Now they are all about pretzels.
Caryl is working on certification for ElJay Pretzels to be a woman-owned business. That will help them get into Food Lion stores and others. She will be giving out samples at the Pawleys Island Lowes Foods Community Table on Friday and at a future Waccamaw High School football game.