VELVA, N.D. — An old family recipe has turned Dorothy Henke's retirement into an adventure.
Henke began marketing her special brand of seasoned pretzels after getting rave reviews wherever she shared her baked specialty.
Even now, she is surprised by the number of customers who go out of their way to contact her after trying Dot's Homestyle Pretzels.
"People grab a bag out of a store, and they have called me and said how great they are," said Henke, who estimates she averages the equivalent of two calls a day. "It's amazing. You can be down in the dumps and you get one of those phone calls, and you think, 'I can get going again.' It makes you feel good. That really is the fun part. Baking pretzels is fun, but when you hear comments like that when it's something you have done, you have created, it makes you feel good."
A Pride of Dakota product, Dot's Homestyle Pretzels was an idea that actually formulated in Arizona, where Henke and her husband, Randy, spend the winters. Relatives of Randy's, who now are Henke's business partners in Arizona, were the first to suggest that Henke go beyond making the pretzels just for her own family. They encouraged her to bag them to give as Christmas gifts. That went over so well that Henke began selling the pretzels at concessions at sporting events.
"People loved them," she said. "It was just fun."
To market in North Dakota, Henke needed to meet the state's requirements for a commercial kitchen. The grocery store in Velva made its kitchen available to her when not in use for its bakery. That was where Henke operated earlier this year, until moving into a building in downtown Velva on Oct. 23.
The Henkes, who live between Max and Benedict, looked at several communities before deciding on Velva because of the availability of a building that suits their needs.
Formerly a wood-working shop, the building needed water and sewer installed along with electrical work and other remodeling. Velva's economic development group and the city's Renaissance Zone are expected to provide assistance with the building costs. Henke's son, who has a background in construction, also helped with the remodeling. Henke's husband, three children and granddaughter all have had some hand in the business.
Henke also has invested in equipment that includes a tumbler that serves as a large mixer.
"The mixing is the key," Henke said.
Not just any pretzel will work, either. Henke buys twisted stick pretzels that meet her specifications from an Indiana manufacturer. Then there is the slow baking that is a critical step in creating the perfect pretzel.
She recently added a second oven to increase her capacity from 400 pounds of pretzels a day to up to 800 pounds. Henke transports the pretzels to area retailers and distributors, who get the product into stores across North Dakota and into South Dakota, Minnesota and Washington state.
The product is available in convenience stores, groceries or other locations in numerous cities. A list of retail sites and an online order form can be found at http://www.dotspretzels.com.
Henke also expects to be at the Pride of Dakota shows taking place around the state over the next couple of months and in Mesa, Ariz., this winter.
Henke said she feels good that her company is helping the economy by generating additional business for local retailers and adding to employment. The company employs one full-time and two part-time workers, including one who does labeling out of her home. Henke said her business is able to offer flexible hours, and it's her intent to give employees time off to fit family activities into their schedules.
Henke hopes to set up a branch operation in Arizona this winter. Arizona regulations allow her to make the pretzels in her home, although that may be temporary, too, if business takes off and requires its own location, she said.
The business has been a big change for Henke, who worked in the financial field for 30 years before retiring to help out on the family farm. Now, she said, she is busier than ever.
"It's overwhelming," she said. "There's no other word for it."
Opening the pretzel business was a calculated decision, though. It came down to the customers.
"If people enjoy them, why not?" she said.