Gus’ Pretzels Hits 100 Years of Hand-Twisted Goodness
The owners of Gus’ Pretzels have had to make some twists and turns over the last century to keep the business thriving, but they remain a fixture in St. Louis and are preparing for a centennial celebration.
In contrast to other local pretzel makers, “We are the original in St. Louis,” says Gus Koebbe III, 34, whose great-grandfather started the business in 1920. “I just think we are part of people’s memories, and that’s something you can’t really buy.”
Frank Ramsperger started making pretzels after losing an eye in an accident at a riveting factory. He learned the pretzel trade from a relative.
“It was hard for him to get hired on to these factories,” said Gus III, speaking at his office inside a building where family members once lived next to their shop in the Benton Park neighborhood. “He started making pretzels just out of necessity to make some money” and sold them to street vendors.
His daughter Marcella married Gus Koebbe and convinced him to take over the business from her father. They supported their seven children via the pretzel shop.
One of their sons, Gus Koebbe II, attended Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau to study computer programming. Despite the fact that he had a good job in the field, he quit, and, at age 23, purchased the pretzel shop from his father.
Gus III also left St. Louis to study business at Missouri State University in Springfield, but he, too, came back to town as soon as he graduated and started working at the pretzel shop in 2007.
“My dad begged me to try something else, but I always knew I wanted to do this,” says Gus III, who had done an internship with Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which is also family owned. “I was always drawn to family and small businesses—being recognized, being here every day. We have our regular [customers at the shop], so I really liked that.”
Despite his appreciation for the history of the business, Gus III wanted to implement some changes. The local pretzel market had become much more crowded than when the older Gus’s entered the business. Competitors include Pretzel Pretzel, Pretzel Boy’s, Philly Pretzel Factory, Auntie Anne’s and QuikTrip.
But Gus III isn’t salty about it.
“Everybody is doing great work. Everybody is putting out quality product. And I think we all help each other—it makes everybody better,” he says.
Before Gus III started working full time at the business, the staff would just bake pretzels once each day and then stop. Realizing that they needed to step up their game, Gus III changed the shop’s processes to start baking pretzels throughout the day.
“Today, here at 3 o’clock, our customers are getting hot pretzels,” says Gus III, who has two daughters—neither of whom is named Gus. The store now offers pretzels, pretzel ends (also available coated in cinnamon and sugar or garlic butter) and pretzel sandwiches.
The store has also started delivering frozen and fresh pretzels. For example, on Jan. 31, Gus III brought 1,000 pretzels to Highland High School in Illinois for the 100th day of school.
The Koebbes briefly had a store at Union Station in the late ’80s, but it didn’t succeed. Gus III said he and his wife are “heavily thinking” about opening a second store, but they do not yet know when or where.
In the meantime, the family is focused on the 100th anniversary. They plan a monthlong celebration beginning on March 21 in which they will host events at the shop with 4 Hands Brewing (a tasting), Park Avenue Coffee (cinnamon-sugar pretzel ends and coffee), St. Louis Snow Cone (a dessert bar where customers can dress pretzel ends) and Fitz’s Root Beer (samples of the soda).
The business also plans to donate 100 pretzels to 100 different nonprofit organizations, which they can then distribute to volunteers or use for fundraising.
“We thought it was a nice way to give back to the community,” says Gus III, who is now vice president and runs the business with his parents, his wife, an uncle and a sister.
The company is also asking people to share their favorite Gus’ memories on Facebook for a chance to win a year of free pretzels.
As to what the future holds, Gus III hopes that the next generation will also be eager join the business. “I think every generation has made the business easier and better than the last,” he says. “And my goal is to make a business for my children that is better and easier than my dad has left it for me. My wife and I talk about this a lot. Our goal is to make a business that our children want to take over and are proud of.”
Featured image of Gus Koebbe III, Suzanne Koebbe and Gus Koebbe II, courtesy of Gus’ Pretzels.