Longtime local kosher bakery calls it quits

Long lines of customers formed at Pratzel’s in 2011 after word spread that the longtime kosher bakery would close after nearly a century of serving the area.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As this week’s huge winter storm bore down on the St. Louis area, there was one person who felt she needn’t be concerned – a fact she found unsettling in itself. 

For once, there were no deliveries to be made or logistics to manage.

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“It’s going to be a very different life for us,” said Elaine Pratzel, 63. “Part of me wants to break into tears all the time. Another part wants to break into the Cheshire Cat’s grin because we’ve done this for so long and it’s taken 24 hours a day, seven days a week of our lives.”

After nearly a century, Pratzel’s Bakery, a landmark in Jewish St. Louis, ceased operations this weekend. A victim of the recession, the longtime kosher institution officially closed Sunday; however, its eventual fate may yet be in flux. Though the company’s space in an industrial park off Dielman Road is idle at present, Elaine’s husband Ronnie said the couple was still searching for a buyer and that Pratzel’s would continue to be inspected by the local Vaad Hoeir to maintain certification of its equipment.

“We are exploring every avenue that we can to perpetuate the bakery,” he said. “The fact that we’ve closed won’t prevent that.”

Though Ronnie said the retail side of the operation, centered on its outlet at Kohn’s, remained strong, the wholesale end, representing about three-quarters of the business had dropped off by 15 to 20 percent in recent years bringing about monthly shortfalls of $10,000-$12,000.

“We got through the first year of the recession pretty well. We didn’t make money but we didn’t lose any money,” he said. “But by the time we rolled into 2010, it just became a monthly fact that we had red ink.”

He said that while the company, which has about 200 wholesale accounts including everything from hotels and restaurants to country clubs and downtown’s America’s Center, hadn’t lost its customers, business orders kept dropping, eventually leaving the bakery with an ongoing deficit. He said Pratzel’s staff had fallen by eight or 10 people in the past few years.

At the time of its shutdown, the bakery employed 20, including Ronnie and Elaine.

Ronnie said that there had been suggestions of moving to an entirely retail operation but the facility was simply too large and had too much capacity to make the switch practical. Still, he said meetings were ongoing in search of a purchaser.

“My interest from the beginning has always been to have the name of this bakery continue in this community,” he said. “It’s been a fixture here for a very long time.”

Elaine agreed with her husband that tough times had caused the closure. She said the company still had 16 months left on its lease but simply couldn’t make a go of it.

“Our business just kept shrinking,” she said. “We had the same customers but each one of them was upset by the economy in terms of their business. It just got to the point where we couldn’t cover our overhead.”

She said that the couple hoped that volume would improve as summer turned to fall but the recovery didn’t materialize. She said staff had been aware for months that if a buyer was not found, the facility would be forced to shut down.

“We are too old to try and wait it out as we might if we were younger so we decided that while we could still pay everyone, we would close,” she said.

Outpouring of support

Pratzel’s didn’t go out without a bang, however. The news of the shutdown sparked a huge demand for the bakery’s products late last week at Kohn’s. Elaine said the bakery went into overdrive but even working at full capacity supplies at the delicatessen ran out by 1 p.m.

She said she heard of wait times approaching two hours.

“Normally, someone [waiting that long] would be in such a bad mood but they weren’t,” she said. “They were all wishing us well, saying how much they enjoyed us over the years and they’re going to miss us. It was such a lovefest at the store yesterday.”

She said the cupcakes were so popular, they had to reorder chocolate from their supplier two or three times. Stollens were another hot item.

“People were buying seven or eight at a time,” she said. “We just couldn’t keep up with the demand.”

Elaine said that although many were trying to stock up on a product that would no longer be available, conversations she overheard in line indicated that some just wanted to share in the institution’s final moments.

As the shelves ran dry, memento-seeking customers even began purchasing items not on the menu, including the Pratzel-logoed aprons off the three sales clerks.

“There was nothing left,” Elaine said. “Not even crumbs.”

Illinois resident Kimberly James, was among Pratzel’s final customers. As she exited Kohn’s Friday afternoon, she reported that they were out of everything. After waiting in line an hour, she bought what was left.

“I got the last couple of cupcakes and a few cookies,” she said. “That’s it.”

The 46-year-old also expressed another concern on the minds of many. Pratzel’s is certified as pareve and its departure will leave a hole in the kosher market.

“I think it’s going to be hard to find another place to accommodate for the [absence of] non-dairy,” she said. “I’m going to have to get online and get things delivered or hope that maybe they’ll come up with another plan and have another bakery come in.”

Ronnie said that the couple had received more than 100 emails and 500 phone calls expressing support. Still, the outpouring of customers at Kohn’s on Friday impressed him.

“That’s remarkable to me,” he said. “We are very fortunate that over the years we have had remarkably loyal customers and people who for generations, we did their wedding, their parent’s wedding, their child’s wedding. I got call after call that they’d been buying from us for 30 years or 40 years. It’s touching to me. It’s really just what I thought we were about.”

You don’t have to be Jewish to love Pratzel’s

It wasn’t just Jews who were mourning the passing of the bakery either. Others were affected as well.

“I’m pretty sad,” said Craig Jacobs, who traveled to Kohn’s Friday all the way from Sunset Hills. “These are the best bagels in St. Louis.”

The 41-year-old doesn’t keep kosher and isn’t Jewish but said he and his family love the taste of a good boiled bagel.

“Bagels in the supermarket just aren’t the same,” he said. “It’s a big bummer.”

Also affected are employees. Outside Ronnie and Elaine, almost the entire staff is non-Jewish. Elaine said they had been able to help place a couple of the bakers in positions at other organizations but many others were in limbo.

“It’s always been very much about family and I guess it transfers to the fact the people who are here became our family,” Ronnie said. “We’ve always worked together. We know who your kids are, who your wife is. We spend a lot of time together.”

Venneil Smith, known around the operation by his nickname Scrump, wore a bright smile Monday morning as he helped others to tidy up the now-shuttered facility. Smith has arrived here daily at 5:30 a.m. to make Pratzel’s signature bagels for 18 years. Asked how many bagels he thinks have passed through his hands during that time, he gives a hearty laugh.

“A lot,” he said with a wide grin.

Still, Smith’s upbeat attitude couldn’t erase the fact that he now must look for another job.

“It’s an emotional time right now because when you’ve put 18 years in and all of the sudden it’s gone, what do you do now?” said Smith who noted the many happy memories and great camaraderie at the bakery. “I try to keep my emotions in check but, like I said, this isn’t easy.”

It’s not easy for the folks at the top either.

“In a sense, Ronnie and I are out of jobs too,” said Elaine. “We didn’t plan this. We were going to quit in two years when our lease was up and all our ducks were in a row.”

Like his wife, Ronnie, 64, said he will miss the institution which was founded by his grandfather 98 years ago and at which he’s worked full-time since 1966. He and his wife took over as the management team in the mid-1980s.

“It’s a living thing,” he said, “and it doesn’t end easily.”