Wednesday, February 1, 2023

St. Louis Gus’ Pretzels: A Must Visit

One Hundred: That’s how long the bakery, Gus’ Pretzels, has been in operation as of 2020. Originally, festivities were scheduled for spring to celebrate this remarkable achievement. But, alas, the pandemic struck.

Four: This is how many generations have managed the business. Gus Koebbe Jr., the current owner, and Suzanne, his wife, are both sexagenarians and will be retiring in this year’s retirement. Their son Gus Koebbe III, 35 years old, will take the keys. To avoid confusion, the father and son will be called “G2” or “G3” while at work. G3 is already in charge of the Benton Park bakery at Arsenal and Lemp across I-55 from Anheuser-Busch. He invited me in on a recent autumn morning.

240 – This is the number of pretzel brats G3 and his team must have on hand by 9 a.m. to fulfill an order for AB employees. The order also includes 40 pretzel sticks and 100 pretzel dogs. It’s a full breakfast. G3 stands at the prep table in a T-shirt with flour dust and a ballcap and describes his daily routine once it’s out of the way. According to him, he rises early and leaves Crestwood home with his three children, and heads for Crestwood. He then commutes to the shop. His early arrival is because it takes approximately an hour for the gas-fired oven to heat up to 425 degrees Fahrenheit (30 pans). “So, what’s it like here during the summer?” I inquire. His eyes widen as he says, “It can get quite hot.”

3,500 – That’s the average number of pretzels Gus bakes each day. Some, like the twists, are frozen and shipped to local grocery shops. Some are wrapped for special orders, such as the one from AB. There are also regular menu options for walk-in customers. Gus offers cold-cut sandwiches on pretzel buns and pretzel-wrapped sausages. These are part of an ongoing collaboration with G&W Sausage, Tower Grove South. Customers love the jalapeno-pepper-jack specialty brat. Gus still serves its famous pretzel sticks.

10.5 – This is how long the sticks should be, but they can vary slightly. G3 claims he can see which employee has rolled it by looking at it. These thick, doughy batons are a St. Louis staple and may have been invented here. Around 20 pretzel bakeries were present in the city at the turn of this century. G2 believes that street vendors had their brown paper bags stuffed with the pretzel sticks. The bakers then rolled the sticks to make them stick out of the bag and satisfy passersby’s appetites.

1920 – In that year Frank Ramsperger (a former riveter who had lost his eye on the job) started a new career baking pretzels from a South City basement. With the help of his brother-in-law, who had learned the German tradition from Germany, he did it. Ramsperger transferred the operation to Arsenal in the 1940s. His daughter Marcella and Gus Koebbe took over in 1952. The place was named Gus’ Pretzels. In 1980, their child, G2, married Suzanne. Together they took over the business. They tried to open a second Union Station location, but it failed. However, they discovered how many people love pretzel-wrapped sausages so they continued doing them. Their young son, G3, would ask his father for permission to help. Sometimes he was granted, but he often fell asleep on top of the flour bags by mid-morning. Suzanne and G2 stopped relying solely on street vendors, and instead focused on creating a space that attracts foot traffic. In the late 1990s, they extended their Arsenal footprint to the corner and added large windows to let customers who were waiting in line see all the baking –and there is a lot to see!

5:45 a.m. – This is the time when the entire baking team usually arrives, according to G3. Mix 50 pounds of flour with water and sugar to make dough. The dough is then dropped into “The Machine”, a machine that was custom-built in University City by Laciny Brothers. It uses extruders to knead the dough and then shapes it into rolls. The rolls are then cut into 3-ounce pieces. The dough is then browned in a solution and baked for 15 minutes. The first batch will be ready at 6:15. Although the shop officially opens at 7:15 a.m., many people who have just finished their night shifts wait outside to get to the door. Sometimes the staff opens a little earlier to help them. G3 reports that a lot of customers come from “the neon shirts”, which are people who work in construction, lawn care, and utility work. They need to eat while they wait in their trucks. Cardinals fans who are coming from the stadium or going to it are another big source of customers. According to the Koebbes, the most memorable customers are those who can reminisce over their childhood memories. These stories are rare in St. Louis bakeries. Gus does.

13 – This is the number of years G3 has been employed. He’s now about to take full control. His father was concerned that his son would feel trapped in the family business, so he begged his son to change his path. The Goebbels just can’t seem to stop eating pretzels. G3, for example, predicts that demand will remain strong after the pandemic. He jokes that he hopes so, “because I’ve put all my eggs into one basket!” In September, he had a baby with his wife: Gus IV–or maybe “G4”.

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