Foodies might look back on 2013 as the Year of the Pretzel Bun.
Wendy's introduced its Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger in July to much fanfare, and within a matter of weeks, it seemed as if pretzel buns were everywhere: fast food restaurants, sit-down restaurants, convenience stores, donut and bagel shops, even the vending machine.
The limited-time Wendy's pretzel-bun sandwiches -- they included a Pretzel Pub Chicken sandwich during the fall -- have since faded into the background, but other national chains that have trotted out copycats include Ruby Tuesday, Blimpie and Red Robin.
A few locally owned establishments and regional chains had beat Wendy's to the pretzel-bun sandwich, and several others have since jumped on the pretzel-bun bandwagon, too.
Here in Pittsburgh, you can't talk pretzels without referencing South Side's Pretzel Shop, where Jaimy Gallagher, co-owner and pretzel maker, said pretzel sandwiches -- including deli sandwiches, sliders and hot dogs served on pretzel buns, and even pizza -- have been sold for 25 to 30 years.
"Our customers laugh about it," she said. "They come in and say, 'Wendy's is copying you.' "
Another local business that beat Wendy's to the pretzel bun is Laurel Food Systems in Robinson, which stocks specialty vending machines in factories, office buildings and colleges around the tri-state area.
Ed Maritz, commissary manager, said Laurel makes ham and cheese, sausage and egg, cheeseburgers, Reubens and Italian deli sandwiches all on pretzel buns. In fact, the company's top-selling hot vending sandwich is the ham-and-cheese pretzel sandwich, with about 1,100 sandwiches sold per week.
And Laurel has been using pretzel buns for about six to seven years now.
At first, the company found the pretzel buns a hassle because they didn't come pre-sliced. So it tried to phase them out, but its sales dropped enough to force pretzel-bun reintroduction -- and serendipitously, its supplier has since started pre-slicing them.
"Anything I put on a pretzel bun does well," Mr. Maritz said. "In fact, I could take an item that's not selling so well and put it on a pretzel bun and it would take off."
Sheetz convenience stores have also sold sandwiches on pretzel buns for several years.
Eat'n Park was slightly slower to the table with the pretzel bun than Wendy's. The local chain's first pretzel-bun item, the Bavarian Turkey Sandwich, debuted in September. But interestingly, Kevin O'Connell, senior vice president of marketing, said the sandwich was developed in the spring of 2012, so Eat'n Park's product development must have overlapped with Wendy's. In fact, as quickly as some of the copycat sandwiches hit the market, it seems as if "a lot of chains were thinking the same thing," he said, but Wendy's just happened to be the first chain to get the product to the counter.
Wendy's spokesman Denny Lynch said the fast-food giant hatched the pretzel-bun idea after spotting pretzel-bread products. primarily as appetizers with dipping sauces, in bistros and casual sit-down restaurants. So it's possible that other companies were noticing that trend at the same time, and they all decided around the same time to shift the trend to sandwiches.
Eat'n Park's Bavarian Turkey Sandwich has quickly risen to become the local chain's second most popular sandwich behind the turkey club. Perhaps more significantly, about 500 customers per week chain-wide request to substitute a pretzel bun for the bread on other sandwiches, even though the menu doesn't specify that substitution is allowed.
So where's the pretzel bun headed in 2014? Although some chains have already dropped the pretzel bun -- including Wendy's, the chain that started it all -- most of the local establishments said pretzel buns are here to stay, at least for the near future.
Even Wendy's isn't necessarily saying the pretzel bun is gone for good. Given the popularity of the sandwiches, Mr. Lynch said they could show up on the menu again in the future.
Eat'n Park is mulling some additional possibilities for the pretzel bun, including a burger, but regardless, "We do plan to keep the bun," said Mr. O'Connell.
Over at Eat'n Park's competitor, King's Family Restaurants, director of food and beverage Tony Egizio said he thinks pretzel buns are "here for a couple more years."
King's actually beat Wendy's to the pretzel bun by just a few weeks, but not with a sandwich. In June, the local chain started offering a pretzel roll as a dinner roll option with all of its entrees.
In September and October, King's took the pretzel concept to sandwiches, selling reuben and sausage link pretzel sliders. For November and December, they've been selling turkey and burger sliders.
"Pretzel anything right now is so mainstream," Mr. Egizio said, noting there's only one food innovation of 2013 that rivals the pretzel bun's popularity: salted caramel.
Which is another story for another day.
Salted Pretzel Rolls
Who says you have to get your pretzel rolls in a restaurant? Giant Eagle is now carrying them in the bakery section, but better yet, you can make some at home.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
1½ cups warm water (110 degrees)
2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
4½ cups all-purpose flour
1¼ teaspoons kosher salt
4 tablespoons melted butter
1/4 cup baking soda
1 egg, lightly beaten
Coarse kosher salt, for sprinkling
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with dough hook attachment, add water, yeast and sugar. Stir and let rest 5 to 10 minutes to allow yeast to activate.
Add the flour, salt and melted butter and mix until combined well. Cover with a towel and allow to rise in a warm place for 1 hour. Punch down dough and divide into 8 equal-sized pieces.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees and place oven rack in middle position. In a large saucepan, bring 2 quarts water to a low boil.
Meanwhile, line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Shape dough pieces into balls.
When water boils, remove pan from heat and slowly add the baking soda. Place pan back on heat and lower to a simmer.
Place 2 to 3 rolls at a time in the poaching liquid for 30 seconds. Carefully turn the rolls over and poach for another 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining rolls.
Using a pastry brush, brush each roll with the beaten egg, coating all sides. Sprinkle rolls with coarse salt. Using a sharp, straight-edged knife, cut a shallow X shape into the top of each roll.
Bake rolls in preheated oven 15 to 20 minutes.
-- Adapted from tastykitchen.com
Rebecca Sodergren: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @pgfoodevents.