Center City Pretzel Co. reopens after blaze

Center City Pretzel Co
A.D. Amorosi

If you ever doubted the connection that Philadelphians have to the mighty the soft pretzel, spend a morning at the newly-reopened Center City Pretzel Co.

Closed to the public for 18 months after the ravages of an electrical fire, owner Erika Tonelli Bonnett reopened the iconic South Philly pretzel bakery-retailer-wholesaler on April 1. Since that time, lines have formed daily — and early, like 5 a.m. — stretching the length of Washington Avenue. Stop and listen to chatter amongst the long line of customers, and you’ll hear people gushing about the hearty smell of pretzels baking, fathers introducing their sons to the first-time pleasure of knotted, baked dough, longtime neighbors recalling being able to get fresh, hot pretzels after midnight, and buyers laughing about whether they should buy three or 30 pretzels.

Center City Pretzel Co
Erika Tonelli Bonnett and her father, Tony, are pictured.PROVIDED

Tonelli Bonnett knows just what her customers are going through when hit by the happiness of Center City Pretzel Co.’s reopening.

“It’s been overwhelming and humbling,” said Tonelli Bonnett who worked under her father, Tony, for 17 years before taking over the family pretzel business. “People have expressed excitement in our being back in so many different ways — tears that haven’t been mine, flowers, cards, phone calls — everyone telling us repeatedly what we mean to them, whether it’s our South Philly block or Philadelphia in general.”

At first, the Center City Pretzel Co’s closing was due to an electrical fire that destroyed its dough extruder — the item which helps to shape its thousands of soft pretzels baked daily. “From there, all of the electrical elements had to get pulled out and fixed. Then there were supply chain issues two years after Covid, parts that when found were being used for other jobs. So, I had to Google and E-bay for the parts we needed. The oven belt rusted in place and had to be replaced. We needed to replace all of the plumbing, as all of the pipes burst from siting unused for so long. The roof had to be replaced after having sat through multiple winters with standing water — that’s Philly, those flat roofs.”

Center City Pretzel Co
A.D. Amorosi

After many issues, everything is up to code and baking big time.

“The headaches aren’t over, but we’re open and functioning,” she said.

The greater part of the difficulties of a closed family business is… the family, Erika, sister Lorie, and their mother who took control of Center City Pretzel Co. after Tony Tonelli passed away in 2021.

“I always worked in the office in the back, and got pulled in and took everything over when my dad got sick,” Tonelli Bonnett said. “During this process, there was a lot of frustration. I have never gone to such a dark place in my life as I had over that 18-month period. This was a traumatic experience. And my mother, at that time, said she was done – that she didn’t want to do this any longer. That put pressure on the relationship with my mom for a time. If she sold this business, part of my father was gone – again – and I couldn’t let that happen.”

So, Tonelli Bonnett dug deep and made her family’s pretzel factory work. “I come from strong stock. I am my father’s daughter. Once I had that realization, there was no doubt in my mind that Center City Pretzel Co. would reopen… And yes, my mother is pleased that we’re here and reopened.”

It’s nearly business as usual for South Philly’s prized pretzel-teria with customers sidling up to the open garage door for big orders or the smaller door for the usual order of 3 or more freshly baked, still oven-hot pretzels. “There’s new faces coming here to buy, to go with the old faces, so we’re indoctrinating them slowly,” said Tonelli Bonnett.

They’re putting what used to be called ‘the Pregel,’ now ‘the Zagel’ back on sale (their famed pretzel bagel) and introducing new items this week (she’s keeping these treats, “something for little hands,” a surprise until they’re dropped, hot).

“It’s a gradual return — I mean, seriously we just got back after being gone for 18 months.”

And along with indoctrinating new shoppers and celebrating longtime fans at Center City Pretzel Co., Tonelli Bennett has learned a lot about herself and her family.

“You’re stronger than you think you are,” she said. “When your back is against the wall, don’t panic – you’ll figure it all out. I like to think that I inherited much of my father’s strength and now, it’s three women running the business. A lot of people might think that without our father, the base is gone from the pyramid. But you have to fortify – and that we did.”

Center City Pretzel Co. is located at 816 Washington Ave. Hours are Monday through Friday from 6 to 11 a.m. and Saturday, 6 to 10 a.m. For information, call 215-463-5664 or visit