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How Dot’s Pretzels became the Midwest’s new food phenom

November 9, 2018

Dots Homestyle Pretzels look like the typical russet-hued twists passed around while watching a game. Their seasoning is barely visible, but unmistakable: beginning with a whiff of synthetic butter, blooming into a garlicky umami with a slight tang, and finishing with a mild afterburn.

Whatever it is, it has people hooked.

Dorothy Dot Henke, who lives near Velva, N.D., a small town outside Minot, launched her seasoned pretzel business as a two-sheet-pan, home kitchen operation. Her timing couldnt have been better.

In 2012, gas stations around Minot picked up her zesty snack just as hordes of hungry oil workers descended.

Dots then arrived at retailers in Minnesota and beyond, often in serendipitous ways. A nephew in Alexandria, Minn., helped her get the pretzels into a convenience store there; an enthusiastic Ace Hardware rep in North Dakota spread Dots through the companys national network.

Although the pretzels have recently become available in most states, theyre still relatively unknown outside the Midwest. But thats changing fast, as fans ship suitcases of Dots to Florida, feed them to camels in the desert or, in the case of retired NBA star Shaquille ONeal, rave about them at speaking engagements. Its only a matter of time before Brooklyn hipsters discover how well they pair with La Croix.

Dot herself has become the fastest rising icon of the salty snack sphere, on her way to rubbing pretzel-twist shoulders with the legendary Nabisco mascot Mr. Salty and Auntie Anne, doyenne of the mall-based soft-pretzel chain.

When the hosts of Milwaukee Public Radios The Pretzel Podcast (of course theres a pretzel podcast) secured an interview with Henke, one gushed, I dont know if theres a bigger pretzel celebrity!

Americans consume $25 billion worth of salty snacks each year, many produced by the industrys Goliath, PepsiCos Frito-Lay, which controls about 60 percent of the snack chip market.

That would make Henke the proverbial David, although her folksy grit more closely resembles that of Grand Forks Herald columnist Marilyn Hagerty, author of the earnest Olive Garden review gone viral.

Henke speaks a Fargo vernacular, peppering conversations with golly, ya know and dang it, as she explains Dots origins.

Several years ago, shed sampled some seasoned pretzels at a wedding reception. She thought they were pretty good, though a little hot for her taste. (What can I say, Im not a spicy gal.) Having recently retired from a career in financial services to help her husband, Randy, run their farm, Henke had some time on her hands and started experimenting. After settling on a recipe she liked, she began making the pretzels for family parties.

When Henke and her husband were wintering at their home in Arizona, a friend asked her to make a few packages of pretzels to give to clients as holiday gifts. The recipients loved them, and clamored for more: People were calling her and saying, Where in the heck did you get these?andthinsp; Henke recalled.

She decided to try selling the pretzels at a nearby flag football concession stand. Back in North Dakota, she participated in a trade show sponsored by the states Pride of Dakota marketing group, where her giveaways led to instant sales.

People would take a sample and think, What the heck, these are just stupid pretzels,andthinsp; she said. And then theyd taste them and theyd go, Omigod.andthinsp;

By late 2012, Henke moved her operation to a commercial kitchen in Velva, added bar codes and nutritional facts to her packaging, and sent samples to Cenex gas stations in North Dakota to see if theyd carry the product. More than 90 percent said yes. The pretzels arrival in the convenience stores coincided with that of an ideal target demographic: thousands of hungry oil workers looking to fuel long shifts with snacks.

Back then, the business was small enough that Henke drove carloads of pretzels to her distributor.

We used to meet on the highway 83 and 23, North Dakota people would know, by the cemetery here, Henke said. Id fill my car up and hed take what I had, put it in his rig, and off we went. And then wed meet again as soon as I had enough product.

Secret seasoning

To clarify: Henke isnt in the business of pretzel-making, but pretzel-seasoning. In the early days, that meant she would hit up multiple Big Lots and Menards on the days they received their shipments of her favorite butter twists to restock her base ingredient. (Today, the Indiana-based pretzel maker supplies Dots directly.)

Dots employees coat the pretzels in oil and a seasoning blend, bake, cool and repackage them, Henke said. But shes coy about describing Dots flavor.

Its whatever your taste buds are, she said. Ive heard its a cheese, its a barbecue, Ive heard so many different things. Its amazing what people come up with. But for me to tell the recipe no way!

The synergistic savory flavor is hard to describe. Even the pretzel podcasters admitted defeat: If you try to explain it, it loses something; its like what makes a joke funny, one said.

Not that many havent tried.

Utah-based vlogger CompletelyKarin posted a glowing YouTube review of Dots, waxing perhaps less than poetically: It has this delicious, like, buttery, Parmesan kind of garlicky flavor that just envelops the whole thing and then when you eat it, it kind of ends with this delicious spice.

Oklahoma-based vlogger the Beer Review Guy didnt do much better as he lifted a bowl of Dots to his nose, swirled it like a wine glass, and sniffed. Theres a big, buttery aroma, a little bit of roasty aroma, and yeastiness, he noted.

The Kansas City Star implored readers to jump on the Dakota pretzel mania that is sweeping the northern states and attempted to reverse-engineer Dots recipe. (Combine melted butter, packaged ranch dressing mix, Worcestershire sauce and seasoned salt; toss with pretzels to coat; and bake.)

Top-selling snack

Although refined palates may balk at Dots faux-butter flavor, the biggest complaint against the pretzels is their price, which, typically at $5.99 for a 1-pound bag, is slightly higher than most competitors.

But plenty of fans are happy to pay and share their fervor on social media. Dots enthusiasts have made videos showing toddlers dropping the TV remote for pretzels, and camo-clad American troops feeding them to camels.

Among the typical user-submitted product photos shared on Dots social media accounts bags of Dots artfully perched on Jamaican beaches and Italian balconies are tableaus with a more lowbrow, Midwestern bent, including pretzels sidling up to chocolate peanut-butter-cup martinis or a fishermans walleye haul.

Back when Henke used her cellphone as the business primary number, Dots lovers used to leave enamored, late night voice mails: I did get a marriage proposal a couple of times, she said.

(Shes sticking with Mr. Dot, as Randy is sometimes called, who helps run the pretzel business along with one of the couples sons.)

In addition to the Velva production facility, Dots has plants in Arizona and Kansas, which turn out pretzels in 30-pound batches, as well as a crushed-pretzel meat rub.

The business Henke thought would just be a little gig quickly became overwhelming; shes busier now than before she retired. But she isnt about to stop shes developing a second pretzel flavor she hopes will be as unique as the original and says the new venture is keeping her young.

As recently as two years ago, Dots pretzels were only available in the Twin Cities at an eclectic smattering of retail outlets: Minneapolis Nicollet Ace Hardware and the gift shops at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park and the American Swedish Institute.

Theyve since arrived at several local grocery stores, including Lunds Byerlys in mid-2017 and, this past spring, Target stores in the Upper Midwest.

Steve Sorensen, who oversees center-store items for Lunds Byerlys, said Dots has quickly become the grocers No. 1-selling snack; the stores go through more than 500 bags a day. We have trouble keeping it on the shelves, he said.

Rachel Hutton 612-673-4569

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