For Loreen Osimowicz, it was love at first sight.

The deli merchandiser for Kroger’s Columbus Division was on a mission to showcase more local and regional products in its 123 stores. She knew that lots of people in her office stopped at a Servatii Pastry Shop & Deli whenever they were in Cincinnati. The bakery’s reputation for producing exquisite European-style pastries and staple baked goods extended far beyond the city limits, all the way to the shores of Lake Erie. Columbus Division president Bruce Macaulay was particularly fond of the six-ounce Bavarian soft pretzels. So she picked up a couple during a July trip to the Queen City.

“They were just beautiful,” she rhapsodizes. “The color was a rich golden brown. I thought they did a very nice job with the packaging. It was extra clear and crisp, so that you could see the product. It was very inviting.” Her affection deepened after a single bite. “They were amazing,” she says.

Osimowicz immediately contacted a food-broker friend to arrange a meeting with Servatii co-owner and master-certified baker Gary Gottenbusch. She loved the story of how Wilhelm Gottenbusch, a German immigrant from a long line of bakers, and sons Gary and Greg had built the family business from a single shop to 13 locations and a state-of-the-art commissary over the last half century. That same day she placed an order for just under 240,000 Bavarian pretzels, enough to fill six semis, and put the Servatii name in Kroger stores in a swath stretching from Toledo to the Ohio-West Virginia border.

“I had a hunch that they were going to be incredibly successful,” Osimowicz says.

Rave customer reviews such as “best pretzel ever” began arriving by email and phone shortly after the pretzels appeared in stores. Osimowicz decided to make the Servatii Bavarian pretzel a permanent item.

The order, together with those from distributors and independent grocers throughout the state, has turned the Gottenbuschs into pretzel barons rolling in dough. Gary estimates that orders for soft-pretzel products—the bakery also produces pretzel sticks and sandwich rolls—account for 20 percent of gross sales, or $2 million to $3 million a year. A whopping $500,000 of that is from the sale of Servatii pretzel dips, a line that consists of a half-dozen flavors such as horseradish cheddar and roasted red pepper

“In five years, that’s going to be $15 million,” he says confidently. “I expect pretzels to be half of my sales in five years.”

Gary attributes the success of Servatii pretzels to a number of factors. The items fill a niche the average bakery is reluctant to enter because of their labor-intensive nature. Making an authentic Bavarian pretzel takes almost 24 hours, even when the process is mechanized. And the demand for soft pretzels and pretzel sandwich rolls has exploded over the last couple of years, a trend that gained momentum after Wendy’s began serving a hamburger on a pretzel bun. Karen Wilson, deli/bakery field merchandiser for Erlanger, Ky.-based Remke Markets, observes that sandwich rolls and sticks are particularly popular with customers of the chain’s 13 area stores during the holidays.

The biggest reason, however, is the pretzels’ flavor and texture, the result of a longer fermentation process and higher-protein flours. The latter provide what Gary describes as a bagel-like “snap” or “chew.” Scott Fox, bakery director for Dorothy Lane Markets, a trio of supermarkets in the Dayton area, confirms that “very long fermentation is key to a lot of good artisan breads and also for a good-quality pretzel.” He should know—Dorothy Lane makes its own European-style artisan breads. It isn’t the only reason the twists taste so good.

“It’s his formula,” Fox says. “It’s his passion. … I can’t attempt to try to make a better pretzel.”

Gary says the Bavarian pretzel recipe is very similar to the one Wilhelm Gottenbusch used when he opened the first Servatii pastry shop just east of Hyde Park Square in 1963. It wasn’t until 1984 that Gary, recently returned from a year in the same Muenster, Germany, baking school his father and grandfather attended, suggested turning the pretzel—the first thing he made in class—into an iconic Servatii staple.

Wilhelm initially dismissed the idea, but Servatii began producing more and more Bavarian pretzels for local German groups to sell at their festivals. The brisk sales gave rise to a demand for pretzels in the Hyde Park shop and downtown kiosk. 

As the pretzel’s popularity increased, so did the variety in Servatii’s growing number of shops. By 1997, Gary had added a patented segmented stick to slice into dipping disks or replace the hot dog bun; a pretzel-shaped sandwich roll; and three-pound and six-pound behemoths designed for stuffing with meats and cheeses and slicing into individual sandwiches—a creative alternative to the traditional deli tray.

Around that time, the pretzels, along with Servatii pastries and breads, began popping up in local grocery stores like Remke Markets and Dorthy Lane.

But Servatii didn’t make a capital commitment to pretzel-making until last December, when its Virginia Avenue commissary took delivery of a $450,000 German-made pretzel-twisting machine that can turn out 2,000 Bavarian pretzels or 12,000 pretzel sticks or sandwich rolls an hour. Three months later, Gary came up with a name for the product line: Pretzel Baron by Servatii, a moniker inspired by the inaugural Beer Baron Ball in 2013.

The investments of money and creativity have paid off. Although the independent supermarkets continue to sell pretzel products stickered with the Servatii name, Osimowicz chose to stock the Bavarian pretzels in Pretzel Baron packaging. And the pretzel-twisting machine is already turning out product for another new customer: a distributor that sells it to area bars and restaurants.

Servatii is ramping up production capacity. By January, a $2.5 million pretzel line longer than a football field capable of making 4,000 pretzels an hour will be operating in the bakery’s second commissary in Springdale, opening this fall. Gary is already talking to a distributor that supplies convenience stores and gas stations.

“There are always customers,” he says. “And there’s always a new innovation, a new product.”