A battle for supremacy is being waged in the hills north of Baltimore. And victory is measured one pretzel at a time.
The biggest players are Rold Gold, whose newest munitions plant is a one-year-old pretzel factory in Aberdeen; and Snyder's of Hanover Inc., the 70-year-old venerable house of pretzel.
Snyder's still makes the best-selling pretzel in the nation, the hard sourdough known affectionately as the beer pretzel.
But its pretzel hegemony has weakened. Rold Gold, made by Dallas-based Frito-Lay Inc., which is a division of PepsiCo Inc., this year surpassed the Pennsylvania company for overall pretzel sales. That includes everything from the hard sourdough to thin pretzels, pretzel sticks, pretzel chips, flavored pretzel bits -- you name it.
It's fitting that Philadelphia and Baltimore, which happen to be the country's first and second biggest consumers of pretzels, should mark the boundaries of this battle.
But the boom in pretzels goes far beyond the traditional stronghold of the mid-Atlantic; sales are up across the nation. The pretzel craze has been fired by consumers' growing demand for a healthy snack food, an aggressive national ad campaign, and a host of daring new twists on an old theme.
Since 1991, pretzels have been by far the fastest-growing segment of the nearly $15 billion snack food industry. Last year, for the first time, pretzel sales passed $1 billion.
With stakes that high, it's not surprising that some of the companies treat their product information like state secrets.
"Snyder's would love to know how many pounds" of pretzels are produced in Aberdeen, said Lynn Markley, a Frito-Lay spokeswoman in Dallas. She wouldn't even give a hint. Nor would she allow a tour of the 100-employee Harford County plant, not without precautions. "We want to open up our doors to you," she said, "but for proprietary reasons . . ."
John T. Lucas, human resources director at Snyder's of Hanover, was a bit more welcoming. In fact, he got a childlike gleam in his eye as he donned a hair net and gingerly led a visitor across the slippery floors of the pretzel bakery.
Inside, the air was thick with the yeasty perfume of freshly mixed sourdough. Mr. Lucas proudly displayed the automated pretzel-twisting machines, their tiny robotic arms endlessly folding and refolding the thin tubes of white dough. And he led the way as armies of uncooked pretzels march lemming-like on a conveyor belt through caustic soda baths, salt showers and long ovens that brown them and bake them jaw-breaking hard, inside and out.
But as much pleasure as Mr. Lucas takes in showing off the place -- even pilfering a piping hot pretzel or two right off the line -- there are some things he too won't reveal, like pounds of flour used, recipes, profits. That would play into the hands of the enemy.
"Pretzel baking is a bit of an art, a bit of a science," he explained cryptically. "The science part of it I think everyone understands. The art, I think, some companies would want to keep to themselves."
Snyder's doesn't have to search for adversaries: First and foremost, of course, is the formidable Rold Gold. But in Milwaukee, Anheuser-Busch's Eagle Snacks division has launched a strong affront; and in New York, RJR Nabisco Holdings practically mocks the health-conscious with a longtime product called Mister Salty.
Tiny Hanover itself and the surrounding Pennsylvania Dutch towns are home to so many old-time "pretzel benders" that the area is America's undisputed, if unofficial, pretzel belt. The region boasts about a baker's dozen of smaller competitors, such as Utz Quality Foods Inc. and Herr Foods Inc., which have expanded beyond their potato chip origins.
Sociologists can theorize about the causes of pretzelmania in the Baltimore-Philly corridor. They can assert that pretzels are the ultimate blue-collar, beer drinker's snack. Or they can pontificate about the food's origins, among fifth-century French and Italian monks who were said to twist the dough in tribute to the arms of praying children.
Long a mid-Atlantic specialty, pretzels today account for only 7.5 percent of all snack food purchases (the eighth best-selling type of snack). Yet they racked up a remarkable 25 percent sales increase last year to $1.1 billion, according to the Snack Food Association, in Alexandria, Va.
That was nearly twice the gain touted by tortilla chips, the second-largest (and second-hottest) category. Reliable old potato chips, still the granddaddy of snack food with $4.7 billion in sales, saw only a 4 percent increase last year.
"Pretzels have seen double digit growth pretty much over the last three or four years," said Jane Schultz of the Snack Food Association. "And that's in large part because of their reputation as a low-fat healthy snack."
TC Unlike potato and tortilla chips, pretzels are baked, not fried. They have no cholesterol, and they're cheap, at an average of $1.86 a pound in supermarkets, compared with $2.29 a pound for tortilla chips and $2.55 for potato chips. Salt is about their only vice, and even that can be avoided, if you don't mind your pretzels a little bland.
"You can pick up your favorite cracker and I'll bet you a dollar to a doughnut that it's not going to have zero fat and zero cholesterol," Mr. Lucas asserted.
This year, the pretzel's torrid pace continues. Sales were up 29 percent in the first half of 1994, according to Nielsen North America in Northbrook, Ill., whose parent, A. C. Nielsen Co., is a division of Dun & Bradstreet Corp. The company tracks snack food sales in food stores, drug stores and mass merchandisers, which represent just under two-thirds of all sales.
In the first half of the year, privately owned Snyder's accounted for $42.4 million, or a second-place ranking of 14 percent of all pretzel sales, in the stores that Nielsen tracks.
In the past decade, Snyder's has broadened beyond its mid-Atlantic base, and now sells in almost every state, as well as in Europe and Japan. It has expanded its physical plant five times since 1988, and now employs more than 700 people.
But the race is to the swift. And inspired by the Hanover town motto, "Tradition on the move," Snyder's won't let the comfortable old pretzel go stale.
A few years ago, a Snyder's research chief overheard a customer in one of the company's factory stores mention that she liked to break up her pretzels and rebake them with various flavorings, such as honey mustard and onion. The researcher decided to replicate the experiment in the lab, and -- Eureka! The birth of the pretzel bit.
Whether or not this bit of pretzel lore is apocryphal, most of the other competitors have followed suit. This summer, Snyder's introduced its fourth and fifth flavors: creamy caramel and pepperoni pizza, coming soon to a supermarket near you.
Snyder's, which can't yet afford the muscle of national advertising, will need this kind of speed and agility to run with the behemoth Frito-Lay.
In the first half of this year, Rold Gold sales reached almost $65 million in the segment of the industry that Nielsen follows. That was more than 21 percent of all pretzel sales.
Sales of all Rold Gold brands are up more than 70 percent this year, according to Frito-Lay's Lynn Markley.
The company and marketing experts agree that Rold Gold owes much of its success to a phenomenal ad campaign. Television viewers have been hard-pressed to avoid the Rold Gold commercials since February, when they first started airing nationwide.
The spots, which feature nebbishy "Seinfeld" actor Jason Alexander performing superhuman athletic feats, include the tag line "It must be the pretzels." They were part of a $12.5 million promotional campaign, according to BrandWeek magazine.
"We're happy about it, pleasantly surprised," Ms. Markley said of the ad campaign, before quickly reconsidering. "Ecstatically surprised."
Thanks to the public's infatuation with pretzels, Frito-Lay now employs more than 100 people at its Aberdeen plant, which started making nothing but Rold Gold pretzels in January. It's one of a handful of Rold Gold plants around the nation.
Ms. Markley said there is room for expansion at Aberdeen, if economic conditions warrant. But other than getting in a knock at Maryland's recent snack tax, she won't say what those factors might be, or even how many pretzels the plant makes each year.
One thing Ms. Markley will confide is that Baltimore is about to become the testing ground for a new product: a fat-free hard sourdough Rold Gold pretzel. Production of the new pretzel begins late this month in Aberdeen, and the product should be in area stores by mid-September (look for the "Made in Maryland" label).
Why test in Baltimore? Because, though the city may lag in any number of quality of life measures, it does eat more pretzels than almost any other town in America. And perhaps more important to Frito-Lay is the fact that Baltimore eats more Snyder's than Rold Gold pretzels.
But that's a minor skirmish in a bigger campaign. What ultimately matters are the national numbers, and few people expect the double-digit sales increases to continue much longer.
"It becomes harder and harder because at some point, when you load the pipeline . . . you start to come up with some tough comparisons," said Terry Bivens, a food, beverage and tobacco analyst at Argus Research Corp. in New York.
But "five to 10 percent [growth] is reasonable" over the next half-decade, he maintained. "I see that category being a very, very strong performer."
That's music to the ears of people like Snyder's John Lucas, who expects pretzels will help put his kids through college someday. Sitting in his office, surrounded by various pretzel paraphernalia, he proudly points to Snyder's Pretzel Press newsletter, with the company's motto: "Never ever call me just a pretzel."
Actually, call it whatever you want. Just don't mention the dreaded phrase "junk food."
When he hears the taboo phrase, a smile drains from Mr. Lucas' face, he sits upright in his chair, and a hint of reproach colors his voice as he patiently sets the record straight: "We call it snack food at home."