People love Uli Elser’s pretzels. A few Sundays ago at the Kensington Farmers Market, customers of all ages lined up to load up on the 55-year-old baker’s gourmet wares, which he sells under the name Squabisch, buying a few at a time. Many were regulars who’ve been supporting Elser since he started selling at the Kensington market eight months ago. They didn’t even wait until they’d left Elser’s booth before they started eating them.
“The most I’ve bought at one time was eight,” said one of Elser’s regulars, Evangeline Ireland. “They don’t last long in my house.”
Squabisch pretzels are nothing like the kind you can pick up at a baseball game or a convenience store. For one, they come with toppings that go beyond salt and mustard, like mushrooms, gruyere cheese, sundried tomatoes, even chocolate, graham cracker crumbs and marshmallows. Elser bakes them in small batches the day he plans to sell them, so they’re as fresh as can be when they go to market. Also, the pretzels cost $4-$5, but ask anyone who’s had one and they’ll tell you it’s worth every cent.
With such attention paid to quality and flavor, it’s no wonder Squabisch is taking off in the foodie’s paradise known as the East Bay. Elser started Squabisch about four years ago as an experiment and now it’s turned into a nice side business. It’s been going so well he recently hired his first paid employee to help him and his wife Sabine with the weekly baking.
Yet Elser says he never wanted to be a baker. Squabisch came about because Elser needed a way out of the music business, where he’s worked for 31 years.
“I’ve been in the music industry my whole career and I’ve been trying to leave for many years,” said Elser. “I enjoyed making pretzels, and I wanted to do something that involved my other passions: beer, brewing beer, food and German culture.”
Days of beer and spaetzle
Elser’s introduction to baking pretzels came through his family. Elser was born in Germany, and although his family moved to San Jose when he was a baby, they never let go of their German heritage. They spoke German at home, and his father fervently supported German brands like Volkswagen.
“They weren’t walking around in lederhosen, but they kept the German spirit alive at home,” said Elser.
For her part, his mother made a lot of food from Swabia, an area of southern Germany where she grew up. It’s the birthplace for foods such as spaetzle (egg noodle dumplings), maultaschen (meat-stuffed pasta), rindsrouladen (stuffed beef roll), and most notably, pretzels. Elser’s mom used a pretzel recipe that had been passed down in her family for generations.
“A lot of American pretzel recipes are flour and water. This German recipe is flour, butter, milk and some malted barley powder,” said Elser.
Mom’s cooking didn’t fire up a love of baking for Elser. His passion growing up was music, which is why he began working for music labels like Rough Trade and Alternative Tentacles after he graduated college in the ‘80s. For the past 15 years he’s been the international distribution manager at Revolver USA, a record distributor in San Francisco.
What ignited Elser’s love for German cooking was starting his own family. His wife Sabine is also German, and they both wanted to share the food of their upbringings with their two children, Lucy Verlaine and Mia. Elser kept at it, going public with his pretzels skills 12 years ago when he started selling them at the Oakland Oktoberfest.
“Doing something with pretzels was always in the back of my mind,” said Elser.
By 2015, Elser wanted to leave the music business but hadn’t found a new career path. Then he heard about a startup in Oakland called Josephine. Later called “the Uber of home cooking,” Josephine provided a marketplace for amateur chefs who wanted to sell home-cooked meals to their neighbors. Elser started by selling pretzels on Josephine under the name Squabisch, the amalgamation of his favorite word “squab” (he once had a radio show called “Music for Squabs”) and “Schwaebische,” meaning “from Swabia.” It didn’t take long before Elser expanded his offerings to include spaetzle and other German cuisine. His food became so popular that the website hired him on occasion to teach pretzel-making classes.
Three years later, Josephine shut down due to pressure from the Alameda County health department. Elser pivoted by obtaining a “cottage food permit” that let him cook at home and sell his food in offsite locations — in his case, outside of breweries. Then his application to use the industrial kitchen at the Bread Project in Berkeley was approved, which meant he could make bigger batches of pretzels and sell them at local farmers markets.
The game changed when Elser started selling at the Kensington Farmers Market. He went from selling dozens of pretzels at a time to hundreds.
“The most I’ve ever sold at the farmers market was 250,” said Elser. “Now, I show up to the market with at least 220.”
The next twist
While business keeps ramping up for Elser and Squabisch, he’s not quitting his job at Revolver anytime soon.
“Squabisch is not going gangbusters, as I still have to keep my day job. The business is getting some real attention, but it’s hard to make it rich selling $4 pretzels,” said Elser.
Elser’s next step is to bring back his pretzel-making classes. After Josephine shut down, Elser continued teaching classes in his kitchen, then moving into a commercial space when it became more popular. Sadly, the kitchen he uses as his classroom, Studio 625 in Albany, is about to close for renovation and Elser has yet to find a new location. (His last class at Studio 625 is on Aug. 24.)
He also plans to continue experimenting with flavors. While his mother’s recipe — “I’ve changed it a little, but in essence its hers,” said Elser — is still the basis for his pretzels, he’s managed to create more than 30 different varieties. Calling them “Schwaebisch food with a California twist,” Elser incorporates all kinds of ingredients into the dough, including Kalamata olives, Meyer lemons, Black Forest ham bacon, Swiss cheese, even dark chocolate with bitter orange. Yet, while Elser’s creations make Squabisch Pretzels unique, they’re not his most popular sellers.
“A lot of people are purists. They just want a plain pretzel with a little salt, just like what they had when they were young,” said Elser.
Squabisch is at the Kensington Farmers Market (10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sundays) 2-3 times a month. Check the Squabisch website for future appearances. The final Studio 625 pretzel-making class takes place 10 a.m., Aug. 24. Tickets are $45 and include a snack and a pint of beer or taster flight from Ocean View Brew Works next door.