Adolph Benzel came to America with a dream, but he probably had no idea his dream would turn into a business that turns out 50 million pretzels a day.
"He came to America with a recipe and a dream to make pretzels," said Ann Benzel, who along with her husband, Bill, Adolph's grandson, today own Benzel's Bretzel Bakery at 5200 Sixth Ave. "It is still the same basic formula we use today in many of our products."
In November 1911, Adolph Benzel started baking pretzels in a 75-square-foot building he purchased on the 1500 block of 15th Avenue.
Ann and Bill Benzel display a bag of pretzels announcing the 100th anniversary of Benzel’s Bretzel Bakery at the Altoona plant on Sixth Avenue.
"He did it himself; it was a one-man operation. It was all done by hand - the mixing, rolling the dough, shaping and cutting the dough into pretzels and then the baking," Ann Benzel said. "We still have Adolph's trunk in the family. It took courage to put your worldly possessions in a trunk and cross the ocean to move to a new country."
This year the company, which has moved several times over the years, celebrates its 100th year in business.
"It is a real milestone," Bill Benzel said.
"You wonder about companies that have started in the last 25 years if they will be here in 100 years," he said. "Anyone who hangs on this long is pretty amazing."
"One hundred years old - that is pretty impressive when you think about it," said Joe Hurd, president and chief executive officer of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce. "People don't always appreciate the quality and reputation of businesses we have here. Benzel's has never been one to blow their own horn, but they are one of the top pretzel producers in the country. They don't feel the need to talk about how wonderful they are."
The company was passed down to Bill Benzel's father, George, and then to Bill and his brother, Donald, before Donald sold his interest to Bill.
Bill Benzel said he started working at the family business when he was 10 years old.
"I worked after school and on weekends. I've done it all. I went on the road selling the product in 1960. You went out and sold it, marketed it, loaded it on the truck and delivered it and tried to collect the money," he said. "I've spent my whole life here, except for a short time selling cars in Miami, and then I came back home."
Although he "retired" in 2004, Bill Benzel stops at the 180,000-square-foot plant almost every day.
For many years, Benzel's made only two varieties of pretzels - twisted thin pretzels and pretzel sticks - but that changed in the early 1990s.
"We couldn't just sell one or two items; the customers wanted more than one or two items. We needed to start making a full line," Bill Benzel said.
Today Benzel's - whose products are sold under the brand name Pennysticks Pretzels - makes 35 varieties of pretzels.
"We have different shapes, but all have their own recipes," Ann Benzel said. "Each one of our products is different."
"We want them to be unique and still be a pretzel," Bill Benzel said.
Benzel's products can be found in many dollar stores, Giant Eagle, Martin's Food Markets and Walmart, among others.
The company also operates an outlet store at the front of the bakery. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.
"We are a small fish in a big ocean. That is why we have to do it good, fast and value added," Bill Benzel said
"We have always been a niche company. We were the first company to come out with oat bran pretzels," Ann Benzel said.
Benzel's products are shipped all over the United States and to Canada, the Caribbean islands and England and soon will be available in Australia.
Modern technology and the computer age dramatically changed the pretzel-making business.
"It is so highly automated now. The product is untouched by human hands, in most cases. The lines are totally computerized. It doesn't matter what product we are making, we push a button and it happens," Ann Benzel said. "We still have bakers there for trouble-shooting and constantly monitoring the process and testing the products."
Today the company employs 70 full-time workers, down from 170 about a dozen years ago.
"We make more product today with 70 people working two shifts than we did with 170 employees with three shifts because of the automation," Ann Benzel said.
She started the company's mail order business about 25 years ago through the website, www.benzels.com.
"We have a very faithful following that orders online no matter what the cost and have done so for years. I still have some of my original customers," she said. "We do a lot of corporate business during the holidays. There are people who love our products and don't mind paying the additional shipping costs."
The Benzels say hard work and loyal employees have been the key to the company's success.
"Bill and I came from backgrounds with a good work ethic. You do what you have to do to get the orders out and keep the customers happy," Ann Benzel said. "Our people have stepped up to the plate. They have had good training and have a good work ethic. They do their jobs well and don't need constant supervision."
She credits her husband for the company's success.
"He knows production in and out. He is the guy we go to when we have a problem," she said. "He knows more about production than any one of us will ever learn."
Being active in the community is also important to the Benzels.
"For me, it is personal and it is very important to give back to the community as an individual and as a company. Fortunately we have been able to give back," Ann Benzel said.
For example, the company established a fund with the Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation in honor of Adolph Benzel. Benzel's also donated $150,000 in matching money for a renovation project at the Mishler Theatre.
Ann Benzel said she soon plans to join her husband in retirement but the company will be in good hands as son, Shaun, vice president of sales, is expected to take over the business.
"The company is in good shape," she said. "It is a good time to think about [retirement] and make Shaun responsible for the next 100 years."
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.