Milwaukee Pretzel Co. seeks steady growth


Milwaukee Pretzel Co.
3950 N. Holton St., Milwaukee
Industry: Food and beverage
Employees: 22

A lot has changed in the past three years for Matt and Katie Wessel, the owners of Milwaukee Pretzel Co.

The husband and wife team approached the German Fest board in the summer of 2013, hoping to secure a booth to sell their German pretzels for the following year. Instead, they were given a spot for that year and scrambled to make enough pretzels with family and friends.

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Katie and Matt Wessel started Milwaukee Pretzel Co. in 2013 after returning from Germany and not finding any pretzels that matched what they’d had overseas.
Katie and Matt Wessel started Milwaukee Pretzel Co. in 2013 after returning from Germany and not finding any pretzels that matched what they’d had overseas.

Back then, the Wessels were using a small space at Wild Flour Bakery in South Milwaukee. Now, they lease a 3,500-square-foot facility on Holton Avenue in Milwaukee. They’ve built a staff that includes 10 full-time employees and another 12 part-timers during busy stretches.

They have gone from producing 70 pretzels per day to thousands. Distribution, which is primarily focused on wholesale settings, now includes a number of area restaurants and extends to several other markets, including Minneapolis and Chicago.

The growth has come at a comfortable pace, Matt said, but he added it seems a lot more explosive looking back, and if he were told where Milwaukee Pretzel Co. would be today, he might have been scared away.

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“The growth has been rapid, but at the same time, we seem to have managed it fairly well,” Wessel said.

The couple had the idea for the company in 2012, when they were living in Germany. After enjoying German pretzels and not finding a similar product on their trips home, the Wessels decided to make their own when they moved back.

Months of testing different recipes, researching proper techniques and talking with German bakers helped them develop what they feel is an authentic German pretzel.

There has been a learning curve along the way. They realized Americans expected the pretzels to come with lots of salt, warmed up and with some sort of dipping sauce. The German-style pretzels came without those features, but the Wessels decided it was fine to make an exception.

The company’s pretzels are made in small batches and from scratch. After the dough is mixed, a machine portions out pretzel strings, but the actual twisting is done by hand, giving each a unique shape. Once the dough rises, the pretzels are sent through a lye bath. The bath draws on traditional German techniques, whereas American pretzels use baking soda, which results in a different taste and texture. After baking in the oven, the pretzels are cooled and sent to packaging.

Landing a spot at German Fest and getting positive feedback gave the Wessels proof their concept worked.

Their focus has been on wholesale accounts, like restaurants, with the couple opting to build a brand and following before entering the retail space. Milwaukee Pretzel Co. also had to pace its growth, turning down some large accounts because the Wessels knew they weren’t ready.

“We’re trying to enjoy the ride and grow fast enough so we don’t miss out on any market opportunities,” Matt said.

Milwaukee Pretzel Co. has gone from producing 70 pretzels per day to thousands.
Milwaukee Pretzel Co. has gone from producing 70 pretzels per day to thousands.

The big jump was the decision to lease their own space and purchase their own equipment.

“So scary,” Katie said. “That’s when we looked at each other and said, ‘Alright, we’re making pretzels for the rest of our life.’”

Katie focuses on product quality, managing the supply chain and customer service. Matt’s focus on the company’s finances and branding draws on his background in marketing.

While automation and a growing staff – the company hopes to add a second shift later this year – have improved production, the Wessels are avoiding making sacrifices in the quality of their product. Choosing higher quality – and higher cost – ingredients adds to the price, but Matt said a lot of restaurants and consumers are interested in or even expecting local, fresh and high-quality products.

For Katie, the ability to create jobs and help employees support themselves has turned out to be one of the most rewarding aspects, although she never considered it when the business started.

“That gives me goosebumps every day when I look around our factory and every two weeks when we make those checks,” she said.

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