ST. LOUIS — Flexibility is something Gus Koebbe III knows a lot about. Mostly because it’s a huge part of his workday at Gus’ Pretzels, twisting dough into sticks, numbers, letters — or whatever else customers request — along with that famous pretzel shape.
But flexibility also is baked into his family’s business; it’s what has helped the iconic St. Louis shop survive for 100 years, with 2021 marking the 101st year.
“It seems like each generation went through things,” Gus III told the Abby Eats St. Louis podcast team on a recent episode. “Like great-grandpa started in the Depression, you know, so he had to work through some serious issues. And my grandpa, I'm sure he went through some stuff. My dad, the '80s, he had some tough times. And, now in the 2000s, it's just, everybody's got to go through their thing.”
Koebbe, also known as Gus III, is now the fourth generation in his family to take over Gus’ Pretzels. He just bought the business from his father, Gus Jr., and is officially taking over this year. His “thing”, as he put it, is continuing to navigate the small business through an unprecedented pandemic. Even so, Gus III is doing what he can to stay positive.
“Everybody's got to make their stamp on Gus’. So, I guess this is my wife and my chance to, you know, put our stamp on it.”
Kneading to innovate
From one Gus to the next, each generation has left a mark on the business. Gus III said a willingness to change has helped his family’s business keep the doors open for a century.
Gus III’s great grandfather, Frank, first started the business in 1920 by selling only to pretzel peddlers, the people who sold the snacks on street corners. Frank’s son-in-law Gus Sr. saw potential in the business and bought the bakery storefront St. Louisans know and love in the shadow of Anheuser-Busch. Under him, it officially became Gus’ Pretzel Shop.
Gus Jr. and his brother evolved the business further, selling directly to customers.
“The pretzel peddlers were phasing out at that time in the 80s, so they started more opening up to retail,” Gus III said of his father and uncle. “And then they added the bratwursts and hotdog-wrapped pretzel to the menu to add more like a lunch instead of just a snack food.”
Gus III has brought even more fresh ideas to the table, including a better system to crank out pretzels throughout the day, a frozen pretzels fundraising arm of the business and collaborations with other restaurants.
They never could have known that a year meant to be full of celebrations would turn into even more pivots and changes.
Knot what they planned
Gus’ had a lot of plans in the works to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2020. They were going to do it big, and it was all set to kick off around St. Patrick’s Day, which is right about the time the world got canceled.
“I tell you what it was. It was pretty brutal. It was a brutal month,” Gus III said.
Their focus shifted from celebrating to just keeping the lights on and employees on the payroll.
“If we can just make it through this year, that will be one of the most successful years in the 100-year history so far,” he said.
When the pandemic flipped the food industry on its head last year, Gus’ Pretzels adapted again, adding curbside pickup and “just trying to stay afloat” while keeping employees and customers safe.
“It was the main goal this year,” Gus III said. “It's been a tough year, but we'll hopefully bounce back, hopefully 2021. I have no expectations for 2021. Whatever comes we're going to hopefully be ready for it.”
A future twist?
Gus III moves into the new year as the new owner of the pretzel shop, something he told us has been a long time coming. Gus said he’s known he’s wanted to run the family business with his name already on the window since he was in high school. That’s when he first started working at the shop part-time.
Nevertheless, on his way to the top of Gus’, he went to Missouri State University to study business.
“I always thought if I ever have kids, I’ll let them know that I went to college. So, I think they have to try something else,” he said.
“My dad always wanted me to do something else. Each generation has begged the next generation not to do it,” Gus said, referring to taking over the family business.
He said each generation has wanted their children to live a normal life, enjoy their weekends and time with family.
“But I guess we’re just stubborn, and we just don’t listen to the generation before us and we just take it over. But yeah, my dad did it to me. His dad did it to him.”
Gus III is now a father of three young children of his own: two little girls and a newborn baby boy named, you guessed it, Gus.
As for whether he plans to keep up the family tradition of trying to talk the next generation out of keeping the family tradition, Gus III said those conversations are already underway.
“I say to my daughter Reese all the time, she’s the 4-year-old, 'You gotta try something, whatever you’re passionate about,'” he said. “If they’re passionate about pretzels, that’s great. If not, you know, it's all about being happy and being passionate. So, if none of my children want to take it over, I'm totally fine with that. They could fall in love with something else, some other profession. And, you know, if not, I'll be here waiting for them.”
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