Family, craft, and tradition all twisted into Shuey’s pretzel business

5 min read10,097 views and 2,394 shares Posted September 23, 2020

This isn’t the story of a salty and delicious Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy. It’s the story of loyalty, tradition, and kinship. It’s a story of family.

Sure, it may be a bit of a twisted tale. But the family who twists together stays together.

The Shueys have been making crafted pretzels in Lebanon for 93 years. It’s a family business that has endured the test of time and produced a Lebanon institution.

With three Shueys currently working the business – co-owners and brothers, Doug and Clayton Shuey, and Clayton’s son, Chris – the three-generation enterprise continues to operate from its combination store and production facility in the northeastern side of Lebanon. Since 1927, no less than a baker’s dozen of Shueys have crafted the business into what it is today, although it hasn’t always been in the same location.

“There have been a lot of family members who have helped along the way,” said Doug Shuey. The business has other employees but will always remain a family tradition. “When you say it’s Shuey’s Pretzels, it really is Shuey’s Pretzels.”

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From left to right: Clayton Shuey and Doug Shuey, brothers and co-owners.

“There are not a lot of family businesses in Lebanon which have been in business that long. You want to keep it intact,” Shuey said. “I used to tell my grandfather, ‘I want to take over the pretzel business one day.’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, right.’ But we’ve kept it going.”

Shuey’s grandfather, Raymond, who also founded the original Dixie Drive-In, learned the art and science of making pretzels in Reading, before the onset of The Great Depression. “My grandfather went to Reading when he was in the sixth grade, and he’d sell pretzels on the street corner, and he did that for years,” said Shuey. “That’s how he got into the business.”

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Originally, Shuey’s Pretzels was located at Sixth and Maple Streets in town. Raymond Shuey then built the current shop at 702 East Lehman Street in 1941.

“Salesmen used to visit my grandfather and try to convince him to market the pretzels in a fancy package with a logo,” Shuey added. “They would say to him, ‘You put your pretzels in a plain plastic bag.’ My grandfather would tell them, ‘It doesn’t matter what bag you put them in. It’s what goes into the bag.’ We’re not fancy. If it’s good, people will buy them.”

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That tradition can be tasted in every bite of a Shuey’s Pretzel. While most agree it’s love that makes the pretzels delicious, Shuey himself claims the coal fire that bakes the pretzels is the key ingredient.

The coal-fired oven over which the pretzels are baked.

“It’s the coal-fired oven that makes them taste so good,” said Shuey, 58. “As far as I know, we’re the only bakery that still makes pretzels in a coal-fired oven. Everything’s out-sourced today. It’s too slow of a process to make them the way we make them. Nobody else makes pretzels like that.”

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“Because we’re small, we buy in small quantities,” said Shuey. “I buy about 2,500 pounds of flour at a time. Every time we get flour, it can be different, so you have to adjust. It’s the same thing with the weather, you have to adjust. We don’t have a temperature-controlled baking area.”

“There’s kind of an art to it,” continued Shuey. “You learn as you go. You have to be able to judge your day. You have to adjust to everything. Our pretzels are on the crisper side, they’re not overly hard. If the flour gets too much water or not enough, it can affect the pretzel. You have to make sure the water is right, because if you don’t, it can throw everything off.”

“The soft pretzels are easy,” added Shuey. “They’re flour, water, malt, and yeast. The hard pretzels are shortening, margarine, malt, yeast, and water. They can be a little more difficult. You mix it, put it in the rolling machine, and then twist them by hand. Once they’re raised, then you’ve got to bake them. In the oven, it usually takes around 10 minutes.”

Whether it’s soft pretzels, hard pretzels – beer or regular – salty, no salt, or dark, Shuey’s owes a certain amount of its success to a consistent process that has endured only a few minor tweaks over the years. Shuey’s Pretzels have always stressed quality over quantity.

The Shuey family’s recipe that has served customers for decades.

“After my grandfather passed, it was my brother and I who kept it going. My father more or less helped us out, because he was still working at the time. My dad would come in and help us after he got off work.”

Except for a short time after graduating from Cedar Crest High School, Doug has worked Shuey’s Pretzels for most of his natural life.

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“I used to help my grandfather when I was 10- or 11-years-old,” Shuey continued. “I grew up in the business. When we took over … we knew what to do. I learned a lot from my grandfather and … my father. It’s something you need to learn by doing. There’s no textbook. Anybody can make pretzels, but not everybody can do it the right way.”

“Huh? I have absolutely no idea. A lot,” said Shuey, when asked how many pretzels the shop has produced over time. “We have people come to us and say, ‘You’ve got to expand.’ But if we did that, they’d (the pretzels) be like everybody else’s. That’s why we do the way we do it.”

The front of Shuey’s Pretzels store, located on East Lehman Street.

Shuey’s is as much a part of Lebanon as bologna or old tunnels or iron furnaces. For years, locals have lined East Lehman Street in the early morning hours just to get a taste of their wholesome goodness. But over those same years, the legend of Shuey’s pretzels’ unique flavor has spread beyond the boundaries of Lebanon County.

“There are very few pretzels,” said Shuey. “Pretzels are predominantly an eastern United States or Pennsylvania thing. Pennsylvania consumes more pretzels than anywhere in the country. It’s predominantly Pennsylvania Dutch. We have people move out of the area and then ask us to send them pretzels.

“We had a gentleman take our pretzels to the Pope,” continued Shuey. “Someone took our pretzels to Washington, D.C. and presented them to the first President Bush. I had the White House call me and tell me they needed a cost, because they keep a record of that. I really thought they were kidding around. When you talk like that … not everybody can say a president ate their pretzels.”

Although all entrepreneurs are some sort of visionaries, not even Raymond Shuey could’ve imagined what Shuey’s Pretzels would turn into. But somewhere, he and a bunch of other earlier Shueys, are smiling.

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“I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can,” concluded Shuey. “As long as people keep coming in the front door, I’ll keep making pretzels. Right now, we’re busy, but we weren’t busy. There for a while (at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic), it was getting rough. People were staying home. As it went on and on, we just had customers trickling in. Now we can’t keep up.”

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