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Making Pretzels, Making a Difference

If you mention the name Marilyn Baker almost anywhere in Northern Kentucky, you’ll often get the same response:

“Oh, the pretzel lady.”

For the past nine years, Baker has owned and operated Yankee Doodle Deli, a maker of gourmet snack pretzels. Baker, who lives in Covington, started the company after her pet Sheltie, Yankee Doodle, passed away. To deal with her grief, Baker, who was working as a full-time speech pathologist at Drake Hospital at the time, started cooking a variety of deli-type foods for her co-workers. As the demand for her home cooking grew, Baker decided she needed to focus on one thing if she hoped to keep up. That one thing? Pretzels.

“I couldn’t keep up making lasagna, black bean chili and all of these other healthy alternatives to fast food,” Baker said. “It all become too overwhelming.

“I narrowed it down to pretzels and once the gift shop at Drake picked them up, I knew I had to get out of my kitchen and into a commercial kitchen. From there, it took off.”

At the beginning, Baker would drive to commercial kitchens in Athens, Ohio and Madison, Indiana to produce her pretzels. After renting a space from The Point in Covington for a period of time, Baker found a large commercial space on Scott Boulevard and opened her own production facility there in January 2009.

“I found the space by driving around. It had a “For Sale” sign on it and was near my home in Covington,” Baker said. “It was big enough that it could easily be converted to meet the health department regulations and it really didn’t need a lot of work.”

At the facility, Baker and her team cook and pack a variety of different pretzels, or “Zels,” four to five days a week. The name “Zels,” said Baker, actually came from a naming contest she held while working at Drake.

“When I was a speech pathologist there and working full-time and bringing in all of this food on the side, I decided to hold a naming contest. Zels as in ‘pret-zels’ was the winner of the contest.”

Today, Yankee Doodle Deli offers a handful of unique flavors including the Spi-Zels (Spicy Garlic), the Honey Gla-zels (Honey), the Cinna-Zels (Cinnamon and Sugar), the Bla-Zels (Blazin’ Hot Nuggets), and the newest flavor, Citru-Zels (Citrus Favored Mini Sticks).

“We wanted to do something with the little sticks that we thought the kids would like,” Baker said. “We thought the kids would like it if it was a citrus flavor, a blend of orange and lime, and that’s what we ended up with.”

Although there are just five flavors available currently, Baker said she has plenty of other ideas to both keep her customers happy and continue to grow her niche.

“I have a whole book of ideas for other flavors that I want to do,” Baker said. “We may run out of (pretzel) shapes, but I’m not worried about that. People ask me all the time, ‘Why don’t you do a dill or buffalo wing flavor?’ But those are already done by the big guys and they do a good job. We’re going to stick with the niche.”

Focusing on that niche has led to solid growth at the company and has afforded Baker the opportunity to hire part-time workers to fill orders from across the Tri-State, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and beyond.

“One of my missions is to hire non-traditional workers,” Baker said. “I have workers that have cognitive impairments – one of my best workers is high-level autistic – and I hire people that have made bad decisions in the past but have gotten their life back together.”

Baker said that Yankee Doodle Deli employs anywhere between four and six workers, depending on order volume. Some of the workers have been clients of The Point-Arc of Northern Kentucky, which Baker says has been a very mutual beneficial relationship. In addition to part-time employees, Baker also brings in interns from Covington’s Life Learning Center who work for 12 weeks at the facility. Most of the workers are cross-trained and get experience doing a variety of different tasks on the production floor. Baker also gets plenty of help from family and friends, including her significant other of 15 years Mike Strobel who Baker says has been a “huge supporter” and is her Honey Gla-zel guru.

“Mike cooks the honey,” Baker said. “That’s his baby.”

Because the pretzels are cooked fresh to order, the production schedule varies, but Baker says that the team is there four to five days a week. Typically, her crew will cook twice a week for five to six hours each day. The other days are spent packaging and labeling the product.

Although the business has found continued success since its launch, Baker says there is plenty of room to grow.

“Our workers want more hours. We have plenty of space. We have plenty of capabilities to grow and produce more,” Baker said. “We are definitely not maxed out.”

Today, the business has over 200 accounts, including many local shops and hangouts such as Coffee Emporium, The Gruff, Left Bank Coffeehouse, and The Lackman. You can also find Yankee Doodle Deli pretzels at West Sixth Brewery in Lexington, gift shops at Drake, Christ, St. Elizabeth and Bethesda hospitals, several liquor stores including DEP’s and Party Source in Northern Kentucky, and a few local markets.

“We just got into Daisy Mae at Findlay Market. He’s really trying to support local businesses,” said Baker. “We are also in Butcher Betties at Friendly Market. The owner, Allison, is a hoot!”

To focus more of her attention on the business, Baker left her full-time position at Drake Hospital three years ago and now works just one home health case a week. The move has allowed her to attend more trade shows and other networking events in an effort to pick up more accounts.

“I do a lot of cold calling. I am doing more networking and attending functions to get my name out there. I’ll also do tastings,” Baker said. “It takes persistence. My goal is to be the icon in the Cincinnati-area for snacks. We have an icon for chili and ice cream. I want to be the go-to brand for snacks.”

Baker said she also keeps a spreadsheet full of ideas and leads that people give her and offers an incentive to anyone who helps her with a sale. Her goal is to land 30-40 new accounts by the end of the year and establish the brand in the corporate gift industry, where she has had some success recently.

“Anyone that gives me a lead that turns into an account gets a tub of pretzels of their choice as a thank you,” said Baker.

Baker said that she is most thankful for all of the support those in Northern Kentucky and the surrounding communities have given her over the years and wants to do her part to give back. She said she loves Covington and is excited to be a part of the change that’s happening in the city.

“I have had a lot of support from the city (of Covington). They have been very supportive and I think the people here appreciate the localness of our product,” Baker said. “I live in Covington and have my business here. I am committed to making a change in the city.”

Story by Jerod Theobald, managing editor/Photo: Marilyn Baker of Yankee Doodle Deli (provided)

This story originally appeared in The River CIty News June 2015 print edition.

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