Where Is The United States' 'Pretzel Belt'?

What's not to love about pretzels? The humble nature of the yeasted treat is matched only by the versatility of its endlessly delicious flavor combinations. Pretzels are salty, sweet, and deeply nostalgic, whether you prefer them in their purest form (hot out of the fryer, sprinkled with coarse salt, and dipped in mustard) or shrunken and dried, dipped in chocolate, filled with peanut butter, or nestled inside a candy bar.

While pretzels were not invented in the United States (their origin dates all the way back to Medieval Europe, per the Heinz History Center), they most definitely hold tenure in the canon of classic American treats. Most shopping malls around the country play host to an outpost of Auntie Anne's, which is known for its soft pretzels, and any fair or sporting event is sure to sell them, too. But one part of the country, affectionately known as the Pretzel Belt or the Snack Belt, is synonymous with twisty fried food. 

Pennsylvania is America's pretzel capital

Just like the dollar-slice shops that pepper New York City, pretzel purveyors are plentiful in the state of Pennsylvania, also known as the Pretzel Belt. PA Eats calls pretzels "purely symbolic of [Pennsylvanian] foodways," noting that nearly 80% of all pretzels sold commercially in the United States are made in the Keystone State. Major brands like Snyder's, Herr's, and Utz dominate the hard pretzel scene nationwide, while the aforementioned Auntie Anne's is a household name for soft pretzels in every state. Why is Pennsylvania so nuts about pretzels?

The German immigrants who came to Pennsylvania in droves between the 17th and 19th centuries are responsible for bringing pretzels to the United States — along with many food staples that are still wrapped up in Pennsylvanian cuisines, like apple butter. As they settled into their new home, the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch sold pretzels at county fairs and markets. Food historian William Woys Weaver tells NPR that "almost every small town in Pennsylvania had its pretzel baker" before the construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was only a matter of time before mass-produced pretzels began flowing out of the state.

Mass production took off in the 19th century

The quarterly magazine Pennsylvania Heritage traces mass pretzel production back to 1861, when Julius Sturgis established the country's first commercial hard-pretzel bakery under his own name in Lititz, Lancaster County, where it remains in operation today. Several other bakeries rode in on the coattails of Sturgis Pretzels throughout the century, fostering national attention. 

Fast-forward to 1961, when a series of corporate buy-outs involving Snyder's, Hanover Canning, and Bechtel's resulted in "enormous growth" for the pretzel industry, per Pennsylvania Heritage. The food's popularity prevails. In 2022, the market size of the North American pretzel industry was $1.7 billion and is expected to reach $2.1 billion by 2028, according to IMARC Group

Part of the reason mass-produced pretzels took off is due to their simple ingredients and straightforward baking process. With that in mind, Pennsylvania's Big Pretzel industry can certainly afford to lose a few bucks to the pretzel lover who decides to bake the treat at home.