For people from Philadelphia, life holds a few inalienable truths: the Eagles are the greatest football team in the history of professional sports; a parade of drunk old men in satin costumes and dainty umbrellas is a family affair; that thing is a jawn; that water is wooder; and there is no such thing as a pretzel if it isn’t shaped like a figure eight.
Philly soft pretzels are one of those foods that are either completely misunderstood or shamefully unknown by the rest of the country. A true soft pretzel should be nothing but a Philly soft pretzel, the doughy-yet-crusty, somehow both salt-encrusted and wet, pull-apart figure-eight. No one should ever be forced to eat the burnt, dry excuses for pretzels available at ballparks, movie theaters, and street vendors in New York. If your pretzel is knot-shaped, has been microwaved, and is barely salted (or worse, bald), you have never eaten a pretzel. You have eaten brown dough.
But soon, there may be a renaissance of better pretzel eating in New York: Two locations of Philly Pretzel Factory are opening in Manhattan this year, in Harlem and Tribeca, and the company, which serves pretzels far superior to any to have graced New Yorkers’ lips, plans to franchise close to two dozen more outposts in New York after that. Oh, you thought New York was the food capital of America? You were wrong — until now.
As a Philadelphia native and dedicated carb-head, Philly soft pretzels have always been a part of my snack regimen (because despite how filling they are, a pretzel is always a small snack). Friends and I would pick them up during free period in high school; they’d be pre- or post- ball game inexpensive delicacies; they’re as omnipresent at my family’s holiday parties as sports commentary and fresh babies. Invariably, on the bus back to New York on visits home, I smuggle a few pretzels with me, only to find I can’t make it the two-and-a-half hour ride without finishing my limited rations. As one friend put it, “I’ve only eaten a vendor pretzel in New York City once, and it was a terrible mistake I will never make again.”
“Once you taste it, you know right away why it’s different,” Philly Pretzel Factory franchisee Jason Glickman told me by phone. Glickman and his partners at Gotham Foods, LLC are the ones responsible for bringing the two Philly Pretzel Factories to New York City. This year, Philly Pretzel Factory is celebrating its 20th year of business — it’s now franchised in 172 locations nationwide, with one franchise in Staten Island and another on Long Island. While bakeries in Philly have been slinging pretzels for more than a hundred years, Philly Soft Pretzel Factory will be the first to take a stab at convincing persnickety and particular New Yorkers to ditch their doughy, heat-lamp disappointments for our hot-out-the-oven classics.
For the uninitiated, one can recognize a Philly pretzel immediately by its shape. The figure-eight is alleged to have come from the Federal Baking Company in South Philadelphia, which was opened by Italian immigrants in the 1920s. Since renamed Federal Pretzel Baking Company, the business was the first to develop the figure-eight shape, as a means to streamline the baking process. Though pretzels as a delicacy have been around since 610 AD, the best soft pretzel wasn’t made until Federal Baking Company in South Philadelphia opened. Thank you to everyone else for trying. C+ for effort.
“People really do not get how much better they are,” one Philadelphia native wrote on Facebook when I asked Philly friends to explain what makes our soft pretzels so good. “It’s like trying to explain why Wawa is great” — another inalienable truth; your 7-Eleven has nothing on our convenience stores — “You don’t realize how good they are until you leave Pennsylvania. When people ask what the difference is you give them a New York vendor pretzel that tastes like a piece of cardboard!” Another friend wrote, “They’re the perfect balance of salty on the outside and a tiny bit sweet inside with the just tough enough crusty exterior that has an inexplicable sheen.” For Glickman, the superiority of a Philly soft pretzel is so simple as to be self-evident: “[They] taste really, really good.”
My favorite place to buy pretzels is outside the sports complexes on game day. Sellers push around shopping carts filled with brown paper bags of the tough-outside, soft-inside pretzels (kind of like Philadelphians themselves, actually), and you can get three of them for $5, less than it would cost you to buy even the cheapest beer at a bar in New York.
The middle is heaven. It’s a chunk of just barely under-baked dough, and if you share the middle of your pretzel with someone, they are legally obligated to marry you. For others, it’s the tacky, slightly crispy outside that’s best — several of my aunts claimed they used to eat the outside first when they were kids. One thing that may be hard to explain to a New Yorker is the deliciousness of the wet salt phenomenon. After only a few hours of a Philly soft pretzel’s life, the crunchy salt absorbs the air’s moisture and slightly melts into the dough. The pretzel becomes slightly...wet. It sounds disgusting but I can assure you it is divine. Please believe me.
Think of it like this: a Philly soft pretzel to us is what bagels are to New Yorkers. They’re cheap, filling, and slightly cumbersome to eat. Some are better than others, and you can get them basically anywhere in Philadelphia. And just like New Yorkers are with their bagels, Philadelphians are snobbish about their pretzels — which is why one commenter on my Facebook post railed against the idea that a Philly staple food could ever be successfully duplicated in other cities. When I asked Glickman what he thought about this feedback, he said that PPF’s testing had proven otherwise. “We’ve done taste testing, and we haven’t noticed any difference between the taste of the ones down on Sansom Street, and the locations we’re opening elsewhere,” he says.
But what about the water? Since New Yorkers are so obsessed with the myth that NYC water is what makes NYC bagels bagels, wouldn’t the reverse be true for Philly soft pretzels? Is a Philly soft pretzel a Philly soft pretzel if it isn’t made with Philly water? Dan DiZio, the co-founder and CEO of PPF, told me by phone, “If people say the water for bagels is great, then technically the water should be great for pretzels, too.”
He explained that the biggest hurdle in coming to New York isn’t replicating the quality, but convincing New Yorkers that their understanding of “real pretzels” is garbage (word choice mine). “At least New Yorkers have a familiarity with [pretzels],” he says. “We just think we have a better product than what is out there on street corners. Most of that stuff has just been sitting there for hours, it’s dried out, it’s not baked. All they’re doing is warming those pretzels up.”
Will New Yorkers ever truly get it? DiZio has high hopes — perhaps too high. He told Philly.com that he’s looking to do something unprecedented (unpretzeldented?) with his Manhattan store openings: “We are trying to replace the bagel,” he says. “They eat bagels all the time there. They have pretzels on every street corner, but we have a better widget – a better product. We have to conquer the New York market.”
Philly Soft Pretzel isn’t a perfect option for the world’s perfect pretzel. I fundamentally disagree with the company’s “dips,” which include buttercream, chocolate dip, and cream cheese. Solid yellow or brown spicy mustard is more than enough to adorn your pretzel, and fancy shit will not be tolerated. But really, who am I to complain? As a Philly native living in a soft pretzel desert, any Philly pretzel will satisfy my salty carb fix in between trips home, and PPF is a more than reasonable option, especially for those whose only exposure to soft pretzels are pre-frozen and cost $10. PPF prides itself on selling fresh pretzels — and there is no comparison to eating a Philly pretzel that has just come out of the oven. As one friend explained, “biting into them while they’re steaming is like a religious experience.” New Yorkers, it’s time to get saved.
Dayna Evans is a writer in New York.