Fourth-generation baker Anthony Panara’s storefront will include a gluten-free production line to facilitate a brown rice flour recipe he pioneered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Matt Skoufalos | July 21, 2021
A nearly 100-year-old soft pretzel bakery steeped in family tradition on both sides of the Delaware River is poised to take a generational leap forward in Oaklyn this summer.
A&A Soft Pretzels, a family business founded in a South Philadelphia basement during the Great Depression, will open its first customer-facing location at 511 White Horse Pike in Oaklyn.
Emerging from those lean times into a small business that has sustained four generations of the Panara family, A&A faced its latest test during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Anthony Panara said.
“Our main business is school cafeterias and sports fundraisers,” he said. “We lost 90 percent of business with the shutdown.”
As those customers dried up, supply-chain issues mounted. At one point, flour was unavailable anywhere within New Jersey or four neighboring states, and ingredient prices “just skyrocketed,” Panara said.
“We haven’t had any volume to go back to our distributors,” he said.
For a company that’s relied on brand awareness and long-term relationships for its business, creating a customer-facing storefront seemed the next logical step to take.
“I’ve always wanted a storefront,” Panara said. “People have always raved about our products, [but] we were only business-to-business.
“The most advertisement my dad ever did was the Yellow Pages,” he said.
“I made signs and put them up five years ago.”
It was Panara’s fiancé, Charlene Delia, who helped him navigate the changes.
Drawing upon her corporate sales background, Delia pitched in to help Panara guide A&A to a 50-50 mix of business-to-consumer sales.
At the same time, she helped research new lines of business for the bakery, including demand for gluten-free products.
A&A soft pretzels have always been free of soy, dairy, nuts, eggs, and preservatives; eliminating gluten from the recipe would be a taller order, however.
During the ingredient shortages, Panara began experimenting with brown rice flour. After a couple months of long nights, he discovered the most reliable option was to mill his own flour. He broke two Magic Bullet blenders and wore down a coffee grinder to get the recipes right, at which point Panara purchased an industrial miller. He plans to trademark his gluten-free flour recipe.
As A&A began to modify its production processes to facilitate the gluten-free pretzel recipe, demand for the products aligned with Panara’s interest in a customer-facing shop.
“Anthony’s passion was to do the storefront,” Delia said. “This kitchen will be gluten-free, and that will get us into larger commercial markets that require that kind of certification, but it will also give the gluten-free community greater peace of mind: separate ovens, separate mixers, separate tools.”
“Gluten-free is keeping us afloat,” Panara said. “The last thing I ever want to hear is that somebody got sick eating our product.”
To the contrary, A&A has gotten an overwhelmingly positive reception for its gluten-free products at local, special-diet eateries in their hometown of Haddon Township, including pickle sandwich-makers Elsie’s and vegan café GoodBeet. The company ships its pretzels everywhere east of the Mississippi River, and has received some heartfelt praise for its work.
“There was a woman having our pretzels shipped somewhere in PA, and she asked about a [gluten-free] pretzel tray for her daughter’s birthday,” Delia said.
“Her daughter heard about the pretzel tray and started crying, saying, ‘I’m going to feel normal for my birthday.’”
While the shop in Oaklyn will exclusively bake gluten-free products, it will carry a full line of soft pretzels with beverages, as well.
Panara plans to offer coffee and soda in addition to some Italian-inspired specialties.
There’s the Big Pig, a hot-dog stuffed pretzel; grilled cheese pretzels; cinnamon sugar pretzels; and the “Pretzoli,” a take on stromboli.
Pretzoli are sold stuffed with cheesesteak, chicken cheesesteak, or pepperoni and cheese; Panara is developing alternatives filled with meatballs and mozzarella and broccoli rabe and provolone.
“Sky’s the limit,” Panara said. “We’re doing what we can.”
For Panara, who’s spent the last 17 years baking soft pretzels alongside his family members at 32nd and Pierce in Cramer Hill, Camden City, opening a retail shop is his contribution to the family legacy.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I’m putting my neck on the line, and hopefully everything will work out.
“God has His way to put me either good or not,” Panara said. “I’m not trying to do anything other than live my life and enjoy work.”
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