Web Exclusive | July 2013 | By Margarette Burnette

Summer’s New Twist

Pretzel bread takes off as customers look for premium choices.

Wendy's new pretzel bacon cheeseburger is a successful fast food menu option.
Wendy's earned nationwide buzz with its new Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger. Wendy's
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One of the most common questions in foodservice—White or wheat?—has grown to include a new option: pretzel. Quick-service restaurants across the country are capitalizing on a new pretzel-bread trend, taking one of the most popular summer snacks and working it into innovative new menu options.

“There are millions of fans of pretzel bread,” says Denny Lynch, senior vice president of communications for Wendy’s. That brand released a limited-time Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger earlier this month, a burger with beef patty, onions, tomato, Cheddar cheese, honey mustard, and applewood-smoked bacon on a pretzel bun.

“This cheeseburger brings together three iconic American foods: cheeseburger, bacon, and pretzel,” Lynch says.

Hamburgers aren’t the only food item being remade as part of the new pretzel trend. Sonic Drive-In recently launched a new Original Pretzel Dog and a Cheesy Bacon Pretzel Dog. Patrick Lenow, vice president of public relations for Sonic, says adding pretzel bread to the menu is part of a larger plan to innovate new food products based on customer tastes.

Consumers view the pretzel bun as a higher-quality bun, he says. “With pretzel dogs, you are really taking the quality that is associated with casual dining and doing it in a quick-service environment,” he says. 

“Even our regular guests like to see new things in the menu. The customer has given us permission to experiment.”

“We reinforce our quality image by having a six-inch hot dog made with 100 percent pure beef, and it’s also a great value starting at $1.99. You’ve got innovation, you’ve got value, and you’ve got high quality both in the hot dog and in the bun.”

Lenow says quick-serve brands are going so far as to innovate their bread options because customers are looking for new ways to consume common food products.

“Even our regular guests like to see new things in the menu,” he says. “The customer has given us permission to experiment.”

Auntie Anne’s, known for its pretzel-based snack menu, is taking advantage of the growing interest in pretzels and recently began offering a breakfast menu for some of its locations. 

“One of the needs we wanted to meet was the breakfast daypart for our airport locations, train stations, and travel plaza locations that are really open early, sometimes as early as five in the morning,” says Carl Hornberger, director of menu management for Lancaster, Pennsylvania–based Auntie Anne’s. “We knew there was an opportunity in each daypart.”

Auntie Anne’s new breakfast menu includes a Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Breakfast Pretzel Sandwich on pretzel dough bread, as well as a Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Breakfast Pretzel Sandwich. The brand also introduced Breakfast Sausage Stix and Pretzel Waffles in some locations.

“We wanted to offer our traditional items in a unique way,” Hornberger says, adding that the food items have surpassed company expectations. 

Though many recent pretzel announcements have been for limited-time offers, other concepts offer pretzel bread as a menu mainstay.

“We have a very loyal and large following because of pretzel bread,” says Florian Pfahler, founder and CEO of Hannah’s Bretzel in Chicago. 

Hannah’s Bretzel refers to its sandwiches as bretzels, a product that, according to the restaurant’s website, is “the better, fresher relative of the pretzel,” made with organic whole-grain flour and organic butter. The fast casual’s menu includes a Wild Alaskan Smoked Salmon Baguette and Thanksgiving 365 Baguette, featuring certified organic smoked turkey. Pfahler says the quick-serve segment must pay attention to quality in order to fully take advantage of the pretzel trend. “If well executed, it’s a delicious bread,” he says.

For Wendy’s, an artisan baker was selected that would work within the company’s kitchen operations to ensure quality, Lynch says. The quick serve began testing its pretzel burger earlier this year, and the results were impressive. 

“It was one of our highest-tested products in recent years, so much so that word got out long before we were ready to promote it,” Lynch says. Fans of the pretzel bread began to tweet about Wendy’s cheeseburger product and spread the word with their friends on social media, he says.

“It was a nice compliment for them to say nice things about the pretzel bread, but it sparked this demand by the rest of the country,” Lynch says. “That clearly told us we’ve got something here. Not only is it working in the three test markets, but we’ve got people outside of the market that are clamoring for a product they’ve never seen or tested yet.”

Whether or not the pretzel trend lasts beyond the summer, operators are prepared to try new things on the menu that signal they’re not sleeping in the innovation department.

“I think it goes back to quality and how to make something that’s not so ‘everyday,’” Lenow says. “You’ve got to give people a reason to make an extra visit. That’s what we’re trying to do.”