Anthony Simmons, with his wife Amber, is living his pretzel dreams even in difficult times.
Looking back on his upbringing, there was no way that Anthony Simmons was destined for anything other than the pretzel business. More than just a fun snack, pretzels were a ubiquitous presence in his life since he was a kid.
"My mother is from New York, so pretzels have always been a part of our life," Simmons says. "I grew up eating them multiple times a week, and as a teenager, I would sell them on the streets as a vendor. I've wanted to open a pretzel place of my own since I was sixteen, but I put it on the back burner because life happened. But I think it was just meant to be."
Though he didn't take a straight path into the business, Simmons is finally living his pretzel dreams with his wife, Amber, as the proprietor of the successful Pretzel Pretzel (multiple locations including 4338 Telegraph Road, Oakville; 314-200-9528).
Since its founding in Affton nearly four years ago, the restaurant has outgrown its original location, added a second one and developed a loyal following for its unique recipes and creative dishes.
Simmons' success is proof that he was right to change course when he was in college. Though he pursued a business degree, he realized right away that it was not something he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Still, he wasn't quite sure he did want, and he worked in and out of the business world until finally deciding to go to culinary school in 2010. Instead of heading for a restaurant kitchen and cooking on a line after graduation, he started working for the iconic Gus' Pretzels so he could learn as much as he could about the food he wanted to create. Immediately, he knew he was on the right path.
"I just loved the everyday part of the business," Simmons says. "I liked the business, the customers, the passion for the product and seeing people eat them. Plus, I just loved working with dough — it takes a special kind of person to love that, because it's not an easy task. There, I realized that this is what I want to do with my life."
Simmons left Gus' to open Pretzel Pretzel in 2017 and has never looked back, even as he and Amber navigate the difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. He credits their success to the recipes and product — Philly-style pretzels, which are baked in connected figure-eight shapes so that they are crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. Pretzel Pretzel's unique recipe keeps its loyal fans coming in, even during these tough times. Simmons is also proud of the restaurant's stuffed pretzels, filled with everything from bratwursts to salsiccia to Philly cheesesteak, which make an ideal on-the-go meal.
"I like to think of us as a restaurant that specializes in pretzels rather than a pretzel shop," Simmons explains.
As much as Simmons is thankful that he, Amber and the Pretzel Pretzel team have been able to weather the storm brought on by the pandemic, he still stresses that it hasn't been easy. As he explains, the pretzel business relies on bulk orders for sporting events, festivals and other occasions that have had to be cancelled because of the risk that large gatherings pose. He's also had to rethink Pretzel Pretzel's business plan; he and Amber had put in a 30-seat dining room inside their Telegraph Road location, only to have that rendered obsolete by COVID — maybe permanently. Still, he can't feel anything but grateful for the support he and the team have received from the community, which is what's getting him through these difficult times.
"At the very beginning, we were worried, like everyone else, about whether we were going to stay in business," Simmons says. "What's kept us going is the support of our customers and the realization that people love our product, service and team. Things are going about as good as they can go in a pandemic. Maybe even a little better."
Simmons took some time to share his thoughts on the state of the hospitality industry, the beauty of sleeping in until 6 a.m. and what he thinks the post-pandemic future might look like for restaurants.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
Well, most importantly I am a father. I have four awesome boys (ages eleven, twelve, fifteen and seventeen) who I am very proud of. Also, just how thankful Amber and I am to have such a successful business and a team.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Espresso. I start every day with two shots of espresso.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Wow, where do I start? St. Louis has so many greats. If I had to pick just one, it would be Mike Johnson and his team. I am a huge fan of the Sugarfire, Hi-Point and Chicken Out concepts, and love their branding and creative marketing. However, my actual list would be too long to list. Those who know me well know I love the St. Louis food scene.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Flour, because it's one of the most versatile ingredients and allows you to be very flexible. And when adding just a few simple additives, it creates something even bigger, and that's how I live my life: Keep adding the little things until it's something bigger.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
That's a tough one, because at this point in my life, I couldn't see myself doing anything else. Sometimes, that's scary. But I would say if I wasn't in the restaurant business, I would have followed in my parents' (Mary and Gary Simmons) footsteps, who were both paramedics in the city of St. Louis for over 30 years. I think our first responders are some of the most important people we can have in our lives.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
Well, first, nothing could have prepared us for what we are going through. I think it's important people know that Amber and I and the team at Pretzel Pretzel are doing our best to keep going, to stay in business and to keep our team working and safe all at the same time. This pandemic has made us rethink our strategy and future immediate growth, but we are confident we are making the right decisions, and we will make it out on the other side of this pandemic.
What do you miss most about the way you did your job before COVID-19?
The crowds, and being able to interact with customers on a personal level. With the capacity restrictions and social distancing guidelines that have been in place since last March, it's made things a little different and kind of quiet.
What do you miss least?
The early hours. Being in the pretzel business has its pros and cons. One con is the early hours. Some nights we start at 11 p.m. or midnight to make sure we have prep done and ready for the early morning rush. Since the pandemic started, we had to adjust our opening hours, so now, instead of waking up at 2 or 3 a.m., we sleep in until 6 am. Don't tell anyone, but we are getting spoiled. We do hope to return to normal hours soon as the vaccine becomes more available and we get back to living normal lives.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
Unfortunately, I have to admit I have been stress-eating a lot
. I am a foodie, and food is my go-to vice. This pandemic stress-eating and weight gain is real. I do occasionally sip a margarita while out dining, but I am a not a drinker, and at 37 years old I have never drank a beer in my life.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
That's a tough one. I want to say everything will be back to normal, but I think we are going to see a hospitality transformation to carry-out and delivery like never before. I think there will always be people who want to dine in, but food establishments have to go in the direction that makes the most sense economically and financially, kind of like what happened to the pizza industry in the '90s. It's scary to think there is a chance we may not be able to sit down and enjoy a meal with our friends and family at our favorite restaurants, although I try to stay optimistic and hope for the best.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
Our customers and our team. This has been a very scary time and the support from our customers and constant reminder in our stores and on social media that people love our products at Pretzel Pretzel and love what our team brings to the table gives me hope and the dedication to keep going. We are very optimistic that we have a product and company that people really want to stay around and be part of the St. Louis food scene, and we look forward to being part of it for a very long time.
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