While Katie Wessel and her husband, Matt, were spending a year in Munich, Germany, they fell in love with German pretzels.
They visited beer gardens to have a drink and pretzel, and the culture reminded them of their home in Milwaukee. But when they moved back, they couldn’t find a pretzel to satisfy their cravings.
Wessel, a Bizwomen Headliner, and her husband started Milwaukee Pretzel Company five years ago to recreate the German snacks they remembered. Wessel took charge of developing the recipe, and their pretzels are now sold in breweries and restaurants throughout the area. Milwaukee Pretzels are made in a production facility in Shorewood, Wis., and shipped frozen to buyers.
Wessel, 32, previously worked in pharmaceutical sales, which is what took her to Munich. Milwaukee Pretzel Co. allowed her to explore a lifelong interest in baking, but she depended on her sales background to generate business.
In September, Wessel plans to visit Germany for a trade show and it will be her first time back in five years. She’s looking forward to stopping by a beer garden for a pretzel and a pint. (Interview edited for brevity and clarity.)
Why did you think a pretzel business would do well in Milwaukee?
Milwaukee is a very Germanic town. The fit is just perfect. There’s been a movement recently for all-natural high-quality unprocessed products and there’s been such craft beer movement as well. Our product is 100 percent natural, non-GMO, no preservatives, no additives. You could tell the market was really hungry for that
How does your pretzel stand out?
The biggest difference with our product is we’re not using any sugar for flavor. We’re using things like malt and rye to really get the flavor profile. There’s also a certain solution that they use in Germany to coat the pretzel that gives it that tangy, pretzel-y flavor, and that’s something we’ve adopted as well.
We just have our traditional Bavarian pretzel, but I’ve worked with a lot of accounts on how they can dress the pretzel up. They can put different toppings on it like cheese, bacon, cinnamon sugar, garlic and parsley. It’s a blank canvas. You’re starting with a really good base so the opportunities are endless for what you can add to it.
How did you come up with the recipe?
I’ve always enjoyed baking and cooking so I spent about nine months perfecting the recipe and working with German bakers trying to get it exactly right. The reason it was so long was primarily because I’m such a perfectionist. I was also working a full-time job at the time and it was something I was doing on nights and weekends. It was a lot of trial and error. I spent a lot of time learning about yeast and constantly tweaking and fiddling with the recipe.
Where does your passion for food come from?
I was about 11 years old and my mom got sick on Thanksgiving Day and someone had to make the food. I thought I would try. As soon as I started I fell in love. In my mind, [the meal] was fantastic. I’m sure it was terrible, but I was very proud.
I love the creative aspect of it. I started cooking on my own and my first job when I was 14 or so was at an Italian restaurant just helping. I worked as a server to help me get through college. I liked that it’s fast-paced – I can’t sit behind a desk.
Numbers at a glance:
Size of facility: 9,000 sq. ft.
Pretzel sizes: 0.33-ounce pretzel bites; 5 ounces; 10 ounces; 16 ounces; 24 ounces
Average time to make a pretzel: 4-5 hours
Locations sold: 150-200