KANSAS CITY - Historical experts say the earliest pretzels were dubbed “pretiolas,” meaning little rewards. These twisted breads were handed out by monks when their young pupils recited their prayers correctly.

Fast forward to 2021, and Ditsch USA, Cincinnati, has developed a wide range of premium deep-frozen pretzel products, firmly establishing the company as one of the world’s leading pretzel manufacturers. What makes their product line so special? For one, artisan pretzels at their best are crispy on the outside, while soft inside, just like the pretzels produced by Ditsch USA.

Looking back over the past year, diversifying its customer base has made the business more successful, despite a highly challenging environment brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Diversifying our pretzel offerings and packaging gave us a broader customer base as we learn from both our retail and foodservice consumer trends,” said Gary Gottenbusch, president of Ditsch USA. “In addition, customers appreciate having one contact for all pretzel needs, especially one with our rate of innovation coupled with our European sister teams.”

Being the single-source pretzel provider is a huge advantage for Ditsch, which offers pretzels that range from tiny sharable bites to 1-pound twisted pretzels to filled products.

Ditsch USA has enjoyed the full trust and confidence of consumers for decades. Its products fulfill strictly defined quality and safety standards; Ditsch USA is SQF LEVEL 3 certified, and European Ditsch facilities meet the food standards according to the IFS (International Featured Standards) and BRC (British Retail Consortium). The latest culinary trends are the inspiration for a constant series of finely tuned recipes, many of which have been singled out for awards by the DLG (German Agricultural Society).

Pre-pandemic, Ditsch USA’s main customers were primarily foodservice and restaurant.

“Our flexibility in packaging made retail ready a natural transition in the pandemic,” he said. “Customers trust packaged products for food safety convenience. However, once foodservice returns and consumers eat out with confidence, I expect us overall to be a balanced business between foodservice and retail.”

“Diversifying our pretzel offerings and packaging gave us a broader customer base as we learn from both our retail and foodservice consumer trends.”

Gary Gottenbusch, president of Ditsch USA.

Historical connections

In Cincinnati, Servatii Pastry Shop & Deli operates multiple retail bakery stores throughout the tri-state region and numerous wholesale customers. The Gottenbusch family has been preparing fresh baked goods since the 1800s. Great grandfather George started out in Muenster, Germany, driving a horse-drawn wagon door to door selling his fresh baked goods. His son, George, attended Germany’s most recognizable baking school and received his “Konditor Meister” status as Master Pastry Chef.

By the early ‘50s, George opened Café Servatii, next to St. Servatii Church — named after an Italian saint — on Servatii Platz, in the heart of Muenster. His son Wilhelm followed in his footsteps. He earned his Master Status, traveled the world, working in Australia, Poland and on an international freighter before settling in Cincinnati.

Emerging technology allowed Gary Gottenbusch to start a new, separate wholesale business called Pretzel Baron, which has just begun to take the family’s signature premium Bavarian pretzels across the nation through foodservice chains, retail in-store bakery/deli and even through private label and co-manufacturing channels. 

The emergence of European pretzel-tying equipment helped fulfill an aspiration that goes back three decades to when he attended AIB International, where he began marrying baking’s art and science in his mind. It is worth noting that Gottenbusch is among a select group of Certified Master Bakers in the United States.

Gary Gottenbusch apprenticed in Germany and continued his training and earned his Master Baker Certification in 2001. He is the third Gottenbusch to reach this level.

Building pretzel demand

His original plan was to supply soft pretzels to the family’s Servatii Pastry Shop retail bakeries in the Cincinnati region, as well as for local supermarkets and outdoor festivals under the Pretzel Baron brand, the original name for the company. Ultimately, the bakery began serving foodservice distributors, supermarket delis, private label and co-manufacturing clients who were clamoring for the signature Bavarian pretzels.

In 2017, 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.

Today, Ditsch USA produces about 80 SKUs of frozen, par-baked soft pretzels for foodservice, in-store bakery/delis, retailers, and even other bakeries and food manufacturers. It specializes in everything from mall-style pretzels and difficult-to-automate items to gourmet snacks and signature, custom-made products specially formulated by Gottenbusch.

More recently, new equipment included flow wrappers, baggers and other systems that paved the way for Ditsch USA to serve the new retail-ready packaging that its customers are now requesting for food safety reasons.

That move found itself on a fast track in a matter of days. Like many wholesale bakers, Ditsch USA scrambled to diversify its business and adjust its operation in a matter of weeks. The company worked with customers to shift from bulk to bagged or individually wrapped.

Current production processes

Ditsch USA offers twisted pretzels, bites, buns, sticks and new giant sliced sandwich pretzels for delis. Filled products are emerging – but still too early to tell, said Gottenbusch. “We are confident in our range now and the developments to come.”

Individually wrapped products require different packing processes, equipment and, above all, food safety concepts.

“The next person who opens the product is the consumer,” Gottenbusch said. “This thinking has always been part of our culture, and so it was a relatively easy step for us to transition.”

He describes the current state of consumer demand.

“Our pretzels and bites packaged retail ready have been surging in demand,” he said, “while our self-service pretzels and rolls sold open have declined dramatically. This reflects the current consumer trends in reduced store visits and living with COVID environment. Towards summer I expect this to change again as consumer confidence in their shopping and lifestyle choices re appears in line with vaccine rollouts. We are seeing consumer habits change at a faster pace than in a longtime.”

Ditsch has been baking pretzels for over 100 years and is a global brand being sold throughout the world. The United States is a new market for the brand.

“We started selling Ditsch branded pretzels in 2017 and are now available in every state,” Gottenbusch said. “Our focus is on bringing great tasting pretzels to everyone – our brand journey is developing well in the industry as a reliable partner, and also in foodservice and retail. Don’t forget we will still be here in another 100 years – our journey is focused on growing the market overall.”

And he believes the pretzel category will continue to grow over the next 5 years.

“The product range we see coming, the uses and the desire to bring new tastes and combinations as foodservice restarts give us a positive outlook going forward,” he explains. “We continue to add capacity and innovation coupled with creative packaging.“

“The product range we see coming, the uses and the desire to bring new tastes and combinations as foodservice restarts give us a positive outlook going forward.”

Gary Gottenbusch, president of Ditsch USA.

Folds of Honor

Unique Snacks is proud to once again stand alongside the many supporters of Folds of Honor to help further its mission of providing academic support to the spouses and children of fallen and disabled service-members. With an increase in participating in-network partners during the 2020 campaign, customers took up the challenge and purchased over 330,000 specially branded 11-ounce packages, which raised $16,642, more than doubling the previous year’s contribution of $6,600.

“We are proud to partner with Folds of Honor in their effort to provide academic scholarships to help the families of our nation’s fallen or disabled service members,” said Justin Spannuth, chief operating officer at Unique Pretzel Bakery, Inc. “Our service members made a commitment to serve our country and have endured tremendous sacrifices. They deserve our respect, gratitude, appreciation and our support.”

Unique donates five cents from each purchase of the specially marked Original “Splits” Pretzel 11-ounce packages to Folds of Honor. The annual promotion, which runs from May through August, is available at many leading retail partners, including Kroger, Whole Foods Market, Giant Martins, Tops Market, Giant Eagle, The Fresh Market, Giant Foods, Weis, Redners, Karns, and Boyers. The special packages are also available on Amazon.com, all military base commissaries in the nation through the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) and on Unique Pretzel’s website throughout the year.

Folds of Honor started providing scholarships for higher education to the spouses and children of America’s fallen and disabled service members in 2007. The organization has awarded approximately 29,000 scholarships, with 4,500 subsidies awarded during the 2020-2021 academic year.