Erika Tonelli Bonnett thought her family’s 40 years of baking soft pretzels could be over.
A power surge on Nov. 9 took out Center City Pretzel Company’s mixer, refrigeration unit, salter and even its WiFi router.
Repairs would be expensive, and the timing was bad — business was already down 80% due to the coronavirus pandemic. Production would have to be halted for a week to allow for electrical work.
“I did an inventory and said, ‘This may be it,’” Tonelli Bonnett recalled.
She considered setting up an online fundraiser, a tool many small businesses have used to stay afloat during the pandemic. With her finger hovered over the button, she went back and forth on the idea, walking away from her computer several times.
“And then I said ‘to hell with it,’ let me hit it, and let’s just see what happens,” Tonelli Bonnett said. “If nothing comes of it, I can say I tried, and if something comes of it, we are eternally grateful for whatever anybody could give.”
In about a week, customers had donated enough to reach Tonelli Bonnett’s goal of $10,000, and, as of Sunday, the GoFundMe had raised $11,378.
Tonelli Bonnett was shocked by the response, and not just the money, but the calls, notes, emails and other messages of support from the community.
“I am stunned. I am humbled beyond words,” she told Metro. “We always just considered ourselves this little, tiny pretzel bakery in South Philly that never advertised.”
Though its name suggests otherwise, Center City Pretzel is at 816 Washington Ave., right by South Philadelphia’s famous Italian Market.
Tonelli Bonnett’s father, Tony, established the business in 1981. He’s enjoying retirement in Florida but still calls his daughter a few times a week to talk shop.
Center City Pretzel shows up on just about every list compiled of the best places to grab one of the city’s signature foods.
Tonelli Bonnett, who oversees all of its day-to-day operations, said the secret is using just three ingredients: flour, yeast and water. In addition, the product is vegan, so they don’t use butter or eggs.
“I always tell people we are a bakery,” she said. “We are not a factory, and there’s a reason because we do take into consideration everybody who walks through that door.”
Unfortunately, fewer pretzels are being baked these days.
Center City Pretzel closed for months at the start of the pandemic, and, when it opened its doors again, the company’s larger clients, which include schools and hospital cafeterias, weren’t ordering.
“When we went to reopen in August, we were basically reopening to a completely different population,” Tonelli Bonnett said. “It was simply locals, which was fantastic, but we lost 80% of our business.”
A bare-bones staff now makes at least 1,500 pretzels a day, a fraction of the bakery’s pre-pandemic output. The shop is open Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 6 a.m. to noon.
Employees struggle to fit boxes through Plexiglas barriers to give to customers, and workers sanitize surfaces throughout the day, Tonelli Bonnett said.
“It’s a non-stop process, you’re constantly moving to stay on top of it,” she added. “We are staying on top of it.”
Center City Pretzel maintains some wholesale clients and ships through the Pennsylvania General Store and www.pretzelsdirect.com.
“That has sustained us,” Tonelli Bonnett said. “The two mail-order companies have really been helpful throughout this.”
She feels for others in the food business, including restaurants, some of which have closed permanently following new city restrictions banning indoor dining.
Tonelli Bonnett urged people to buy local as much as possible during the holiday season.
“Philadelphia is built on the shoulders of small businesses and the people who came before us,” she said. “There’s a charm to that, and it’s horrible to see that go away. That would be devastating.”