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June 29, 2023

Center City Pretzel Co. looks to reopen in late July – 10 months after it caught fire

News site Vice calls the pretzels Philly's best in a video recently posted online, but no one has been able to try them for themselves recently. That could change soon

Business Soft Pretzels
Center City Pretzel reopen @centercitypretzelcoinc/Instagram

Center City Pretzel Co., closed since an electrical fire in September 2022, hopes to welcome back customers to the South Philly bakery by the end of July.

For 42 years, an unassuming garage door on Washington Avenue has been among Philly's best places to stop for a batch of classic soft pretzels — the doughy, figure-eight style with a good sweat and enough salt to chap the lips a little bit.

Center City Pretzel Co., the family-owned business that Erika Tonelli Bonnett took over from her late father, Tony, was in prime form last September at the start of another busy Eagles season.

Bonnett, 47, had welcomed in a film crew from Vice's food news website Munchies to do a video profile about the bakery on Sept. 26. Two days after the footage was recorded, an electrical fire damaged the store's dough extruder and an electrical panel, forcing Center City Pretzel Co. to close indefinitely for repairs.

The business was supposed to reopen in a few months. And then, surely, only a few more months.

When Vice finally published that feel-good video about "Philly's best pretzels" earlier this month, nobody could even get them because the shop was still closed.

Nearly nine months after the fire, Center City Pretzel is still wrapped up in a messy insurance situation, Bonnett said, and she is now aiming to get the business reopened by the end of July.

"The frustration level, I don't know how I'm not either in a mental hospital or in jail. Or an alcoholic," she said.

The damage to Center City Pretzel's dough extruder was a major hit, because the machine forms thousands of pretzels baked there daily, and repairing the three-phase electrical panel alone came to $30,000  — a cost that was not covered by insurance, Bonnett said.

Other delays have resulted from the unavailability of parts, which has been explained away as supply chain issues, Bonnett said, adding that she has resorted to locating items online herself.

With it taking so long to get the original problems fixed, new but related issues have surfaced: A pipe burst in the bakery's front closet during of a cold snap in January. With the oven not in use, its conveyor belt has rusted place, and Bonnett said the whole building needs to be power washed and sanitized — again — once all the messy repair work is completed.

This all contributed to the strange feeling Bonnett had when she watched the Vice video earlier this month. The clip has racked up more than 231,000 views for what might as well be a mythical pretzel from the distant, sunny land of Philadelphia.

"The Vice video came out and I was excited to see it because I miss what we do. I miss the characters and the people and the vendors. I miss the interaction," Bonnett said. "I miss my employees and all the people who make that place run, including our customers."

Bonnett, formerly an attorney, switched careers to help her dad run the shop 17 years ago. She soaked up his knowledge and took over the business, with help from her mother, when her father retired and later became ill. He died at 71 in September 2021.

Vice captured the quirkiness of the business at 816 Washington Ave. Center City Pretzel's business is about half retail and half wholesale. Everybody gets their pretzels through the garage door. SEPTA bus drivers, gearing up for a long day, stop outside the garage at the crack of dawn to pop out and get fresh boxes of pretzels.

"We're always known as the bakery with the garage door," Bonnett said.

Days after the fire, Bonnett remembers the video's producers asking to come back to shoot more footage. She had to tell them the place was closed.

And since then, instead of talking to her customers, Bonnett's full-time job has been dealing with insurance agents, chasing around electrical contractors and hiring an attorney to take on the insurance company. Hardly any of these people talk to her directly, but it's her job to get them to talk to each other and keep her informed. She hasn't been paid since January. She has seven employees she wants to bring back — and most of them say they'll be ready to return — but months have passed without a clear end in sight.

"This process has been a nightmare," Bonnett said. "As a woman-owned small business, I feel completely taken advantage of. I'm a 4-foot-11 woman running a business in Philly. I feel safer in my bakery and in the city than I do dealing with any contractor or insurance company. I've never used my gender as a thing, but I will say, (with) this process, I absolutely feel taken advantage of. I feel like we've been given the run around (and told) this is just how it works. And when you raise your voice, you're a hysterical female that nobody wants to deal with."

Longtime customers continue to check in on the status of the shop. Some try to set up orders for future events, not knowing the business is closed. What keeps Bonnett sane and determined is her father's legacy. Tony Tonelli helped make the Philadelphia soft pretzel worthy of its name.

"His stamp is on it. I'm just trying to take up the reins, where he left the business and maybe even better it slightly. He set the bar for this," Bonnett said. "Some of our customers are rabid and I love them for it."

The new equipment at Center City Pretzel Co. will need to be tested and the ancillary repairs need to get done, but Bonnett is hopeful this can happen before her 48th birthday in early August.

"I want to jump back into this immediately. My plan right now is just open the doors, get the pretzels out of the oven and get the people back in the door," Bonnett said.

Asked what her father would say about the situation, Bonnett paused and reflected on the last nine months.

"In the nice words? It would probably be, 'Don't let them win. Keep it up. You're strong enough. You're tough enough. You are my kid,'" Bonnett said.

Center City Pretzel Co. has a GoFundMe campaign for donations to help cover the cost of the remaining work that needs to be completed for the reopening. Updates about the bakery and when it will reopen will be posted on Instagram and Facebook.