Pretzel bakery maintains niche following despite low-tech shop

The bakery began with German-born Rudie Schaaf opening Gem City Pretzel on Warren Street in 1906, not long after he arrived in Dayton as a boy in 1895. The shop’s current location at 210 Xenia Ave. dates to 1926 when his daughter, Emma, moved it there and renamed it.

Smale’s history twists into the city’s at every turn. A stand operated in the old downtown Arcade for years. Armloads of pretzels were ferried to neighborhood groceries and found their way into the hands of generations of school kids. Larry Smales, Schaaf’s great-grandson, recalls that as a boy he sold pretzels to legions of NCR employees on their lunch breaks.

“I’d sell a hundred pretzels in the seventh or eighth grade,” he said.

Today, Smales remains a small player in the nation’s $180 million pretzel industry. It wholesales pretzels for school fundraisers and large company employee events. Thousands go out the door daily with walk-in customers.

It’s a neighborly affair. Buyers walk up from the sidewalk for their economical lunch or low-cal dinner. A can of cold soda to wash down a 70-cent soft pretzel will set you back another 75 cents. Kris O’Neill of Kettering stopped by last week to pick up bags of soft pretzels for Chaminade Julienne’s boys soccer team.

“They’re the best pretzels around,” she said.

There’s no formal menu, so to speak, but you can get no salt, light salt, regular salt and extra salt pretzels, Smales said. Mustard packs are free.

“We tried the cheese thing at one time and it was such a hassle, we quit doing it,” Smales said. “We really haven’t changed all these years.”

It’s not low-tech at Smales, it’s no tech. You can’t fax your order. There’s no fax. You have to arrive early — baking is done from 6 a.m. to about noon. There’s an old landline phone, but no answering machine. No cash register, either. Closing time is 1 p.m. Aside from Larry, there’s only one other employee. Smales could be a bigger operation, but Larry likes his customer base small.

Wright State University economics professor Robert Premus places Smales in the lifestyle business category, a niche player with a loyal customer base that keeps dollars circulating locally. Studies estimate that half the nation’s businesses operate on a similar small scale. They don’t get that much media attention, he added.

“It adds flavor and variety to have active local arts and crafts and small businesses providing niche markets,” Premus said. “People are looking for niche products.”

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