They say folks can find anything in New York if they look hard enough. With a city so diverse and packed with global cuisine, there really is just about any food a guy or gal could want. But when we’re hankering for something that can’t be found in the five boroughs, what are we to do? After getting fed up with the same old street corner pretzels, Leon and Barella Kirkland decided – it was high time to quit their day jobs and get to baking. “We got started because the street pretzels in New York City just didn’t cut it,” says Leon. “I grew up in South Philadelphia, not far from the Italian market and where all the pretzel makers are in Philly. So when I was a kid, you’d go over there Saturday morning and buy a dozen.” Today, the ol’ pretzel is still a major part of his hometown — and a reason for some serious homesickness. “The pretzel is a big tradition in Philadelphia, and in the whole state, because of the Pennsylvania Dutch, who brought the recipe to the States. Then the Italians kind of did their riff on it and it became the Philadelphia-style pretzel.”

While Leon cursed the city’s lack of a decent snack, Barella began perfecting her baking skills. On New Years Eve of 2012 the two made their first batch of pretzels. From that day on, they were all about cooking up some dough. “My husband and I always wanted to get out of the corporate rat race and do something different,” Barella says. “It took three months to perfect the recipe. We started the company in January last year and finished our recipe in March. We’re both self-trained, with no culinary experience, so we just tried some things and toyed with it until it was just right.” According to Leon, it was a whole lotta trial and error to begin with. “We just made white bread at first,” he says, laughing. “That’s what we started with. We literally started out doing everything by hand. We didn’t even have a mixer. We were hand mixing the dough, hand measuring everything by weight, rolling the pretzels out by hand. You know, it was pretty labor-intensive — and it still is — but it was even more labor-intensive back then.”

After all their efforts, it’s looking like they’ve nailed that recipe. Last month, the couple moved into their very own storefront in Brooklyn. Leon and Barella started off selling their pretzels around the city at places like the Dekalb Market, Smorgasburg, City Swiggers, Richlane Bar and Hops & Hocks. So when they found an open space over at 724 Sterling Place in Crown Heights, they knew it was time to set up shop.

Starting any kind of business can be a daunting process, but Barella says that cooking for friends and family helped prepare her for some large-scale pretzel makin’. “We would do these dinner parties for friends and a big fish fry at our house every year with 60-70 people,” she says. “I think doing that really took the fear out of cooking for large groups of people.”

Barella says that most of Pelzer’s customers so far are Philly natives looking for a taste of home. “It’s very nostalgic for them,” she says. “I think Philadelphians eat about four times more pretzels than everyone else.” And in the spirit of true pretzel-lovin’, Leon and Barella dream of feeding the masses one day. “This is all rooted in Philly nostalgia,” Leon says. “The factories down there are really industrial-scale, huge. That’s what we’re aspiring to — not to be the pretzel behemoth, but we want to have something big and make real volume before it’s all said and done.”

The secret to these doughy perfections? Pelzer’s base recipe is vegan. “We do the classic Philly method,” Barella says. “We decided to use a lye bath because it’s the traditional way to make them. Most people will do an egg wash on the pretzels before baking them, but a lye bath gives them a nice sheen, the dark color, and that distinct pretzel flavor.”

So here’s the tried-and-true method Leon and Barella are sticking to after their three months of painstaking efforts:
  1. Mix up flour, water, yeast, salt, vegetable oil and brown sugar
  2. Roll it into a flat, round mound that looks like pizza dough
  3. Run it through a dough separator
  4. Place the pieces of dough on a baking sheet
  5. Let it rise
  6. Twist it into shape
  7. Dip each pretzel into a (food-grade, of course!) lye bath
  8. Bake it all for 8-10 minutes

Barella also likes to add extra toppings and flavors inside the dough and out. So be sure to try an Everything Pretzel or a Cheddar & Jalapeño (hey, or both) then dunk them into the Champagne Honey Mustard or Spicy Beer Mustard. Those pretzels in the hot dog cart will never look the same way to our hungry eyes again.

Pelzer's Pretzels
724 Sterling Place, Crown Heights, Brooklyn
(718) 552-2998