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November 13, 2017

Where do you stand in the 'soft pretzels for breakfast' debate?

Haters are wrong about the glory of eating a traditional Philly food first thing in the morning

Opinion Soft Pretzels
Carroll - Philly soft pretzels Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Philly soft pretzels.

An interesting debate broke out on Twitter last Friday, and I feel it’s important to bring it to your attention.

Specifically, local writer Drew Lazor cast aspersions upon those who choose to eat Philly soft pretzels for breakfast. Even more specifically, he likened such folks to “people wrapping their entire mouth around the water fountain on 'Parks & Rec.'”

I found this take offensive enough to resort to profanity in my response to Mr. Lazor. I will not, however, resort to profanity in this piece. The world is angry enough as it is.

What I will do, however, is allow Lazor to make his case and then destroy it with facts and data.

In a private conversation, as his Twitter stream filled with takes both pro and con in regards to breakfast pretzels, he described living in Philly for quite a while though not coming to terms with “a few food traditions.”

“I've never been a fan of the squished, horizontal Philly-style soft pretzel,” he proffered in a fashion that exposed himself as a latent Philadelphia hater. “I'm just speaking from my own perspective here, but so often, they taste like absolutely nothing, an overly salty, oppressively heavy carbohydrate bomb that leaves me feeling listless and ultimately unsatisfied.”

He carried on about “weird” textures and “stale” tastes, before noting that the “fresh out of the oven” argument does not hold weight with him.

“It has to be the most overrated native food in Philadelphia,” he concluded, offering the caveat that “I'm not here to lecture other people on what they should or shouldn't eat. Do you!”

This was polite of him, for sure, but then he delved into the breakfast-pretzels realm and lost all traces of tact.

“I can't envision a world in which I wake up, roll out of bed, get dressed and head out the door on my way to work and suddenly think ‘Mmm, you know what I'm really craving for my very first meal of the day? Two cold, stiff, flavorless pretzels covered in industrial rock salt and squiggles of Gulden's Mustard! Yum yum yum!’” he said. “Yet I see people downing these things with great gusto on the sidewalks of Philadelphia daily. It's so weird to me. I'd rather go hungry.”

"It has to be the most overrated native food in Philadelphia....It's so weird to me. I'd rather go hungry." – Drew Lazor, local food writer

Well you know what, Drew: I can envision a world in which I wake up, roll out of bed, get dressed and head out the door on the way to work and indulge my soft-pretzel cravings. Many people do, and it's a tasty convenience.

No, I don’t do it all the time, but sometimes, it is very good, and not bad, to have that salty dough belly filler whilst walking to the office.

Sure, they're empty nutritionally for the most part. That can be seen as a positive when framed in comparison with bad-for-you foods that people often eat in the morning.

There is a bit of nostalgia at work here, also. 

I fondly remember days off from school when my mom would bring me to work with her at the American Express travel agency located in what is now a 7-Eleven at 16th and JFK. I would walk out to the nearest food truck and get a soft pretzel for breakfast. It was an exotic treat. And it was delicious.

My nostalgia does not explain why you’ll see loads of people grabbing a pretzel for a quick bite while walking through Center City.

Nor does it explain why Dunkin Donuts has introduced the “Pretzel Croissant Breakfast Sandwich” which it describes as “a morning win” because a morning win is a pretzel croissant breakfast sandwich.

Same goes for the Philly Pretzel Factory's recent introduction of "Pretzel Bagel Sandwiches."

Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

The pretzels-for-breakfast movement doesn't stop at food trucks. Philadelphia Pretzel Factory recently introduced 'Pretzel Bagel Sandwiches' to its menu.

What does explain that, and other pretzel variants on morning sustenance, is that it is good and popular and convenient. To wit:

“Philly’s soft pretzels are breakfast for many a commuter on the run,” reads a line in a 2007 post titled “Soft Pretzels: A Philadelphia ‘Culinary’ Tradition.”

Listen, I’m not sure how keen I am on schools providing students with breakfast pretzels. A banana or bacon would be easier to understand. But tradition is tradition, and as long as kids aren’t going hungry, pretzels are A-OK with me.

Still, I reached out to the good folks at Philly Pretzel Factory so they could weigh in on Lazor's appalling opinions.

Marty Ferrill is the company's president, so it's safe to say that he knows quite a bit about Philly soft pretzels and the time of the day in which they're eaten. We chatted on the phone Monday to delve into his take on Lazor's take.

This is where facts and data come in.

Ferrill told me that their stores open at 6 a.m. and the morning is their busiest time.

"There's more business before 10 a.m. than there is the rest of the day," he said. 

He acknowledged that some of the demand could be from customers arriving to pick up bulk orders for their offices "but they're picking up a pretzel to eat when they're there in the morning as well."

"It's a resounding 'yes,'" he said when asked about sales, popularity and normalcy of breakfast pretzels.

As the company expands into new non-Philly markets, breakfast pretzels are initially seen as curiosities, but it doesn't take long for them to become accepted morning fare, he said.

"We have a full menu as soon as the doors open. People are buying pretzel hot dogs, and cheesesteak pretzels in the morning," he said. "We're used to it in Philly, but pretzels and bagels, I don't see the difference. They're both doughy breakfast (items)." 

I couldn't agree more, but maybe you side with Lazor on this important debate. Feel free to fight it out in the comments section if you're so inclined.