Careful, measured approach marks Port City Pretzels growth

Owner Suzanna Foley has perfected the production of pretzels in Portsmouth
Suzanne Foley Port City Pretzels

Suzanne Foley is founder of Port City Pretzels, shown here with ready-to-ship product at her new facility on West Road in Portsmouth. (Photo by Paul Briand)

By most any business metric, Suzanne Foley and her Port City Pretzels have been a success.

Since initially going into business some eight years ago, her production has grown, her presence on store shelves has grown, and her operational structure has grown, as she’s needed more space and better, more efficient equipment to keep up with demand.

But Foley takes only a little comfort in that success, because she takes none of it for granted.

“I was very conservative in everything that I did,” said Foley, who founded Port City Pretzels in 2015. “So it took me some time to realize the possibility for the growth of my company.”

“I’m careful because I don’t want to disappoint my retailers,” she added. “As we add stores, I’m very careful about that.”

The story of Port City Pretzels starts in the kitchen of her late mother-in-law, Eileen Foley, more than 30 years ago. Eileen Foley, the longest serving mayor in the city of Portsmouth’s history, made pretzels by hand, and Suzanne Foley then thought to herself:  “These are good. Somebody should make these, and we should call them Portsmouth Pretzels.”

Fast forward several years as Suzanne Foley worked herself through several emotional challenges, including the loss of a corporate job and unemployment and the loss of family members. So she refocused. She rebooted. And she thought back to her mother-in-law’s kitchen.

“And then a light bulb went off,” she recalled. “And I thought, ‘I’m going to make those pretzels.’”

With her two daughters as taste-testers, she tweaked the Foley family pretzel recipe, taking several months to not only develop the product but develop a business and business plan to make and sell that product.

And she dumped the idea of Portsmouth Pretzels. Too local, too parochial, she was advised. So she chose something a bit more general: Port City Pretzels.

Each careful step along the way, Foley has always measured her growth — new space, new equipment, new hires — against the business’s ability to afford it.

“I’m very conservative. Debt scares me. It’s not my comfort level,” said Foley. “I can be an entrepreneur all day long, but that piece I’m a poor entrepreneur.”

Her growth in terms of space has gone from her kitchen to 500 square feet, then 1,000 square feet, then 1,500 square feet in a Chinburg Development mill building in Dover. She took on 3,000 square feet on Heritage Avenue in Portsmouth five years ago.

“That was a really big deal, and I just thought I would be there forever,” she said. “Very quickly I noticed I was running out of space.” Workers couldn’t make a turn with the pallet jack without knocking into another pallet of ready-to-ship product.

She worked with David Choate, principal broker at Colliers International in Portsmouth, to move into new space it manages on West Road in Portsmouth. Ultimately with this new facility, she has up to 17,000 square feet available to her.

Square foot growth is symbiotic with upticks in production as more stores, more distributors want her product.

Her original packing machine could manage up to four bags per minute. Her newly installed machine on West Road is capable of up to 30 bags per minute.

“We’ve got a lot of projects now in the works to expand on next year, now that the equipment is running,” said Foley.

The biggest project is getting products onto the shelves of some 80 stores in the Market Basket grocery store chain. Another large grocery chain is in the midst.

Her four varieties of pretzels — Tasty Ranch Dill (the original), Cinnamon Sugar, Feisty Hot, and Tangy Mustard ‘N Honey — can be found now in Hannaford grocery stores, Walmarts, several regional food chains in Texas and the Midwest, and in various outlets handled by her distributors.

The pretzel sticks themselves are made off-site. The Foley-perfected spicing is then added and pretzels are bagged and shipped from her Portsmouth facility.

The competition for shelf space is a constant one, which is why Foley recently took on a broker to help push sales to new customers. Among his ideas is the recent use of shippers that are prepacked with products, making them easy to set up in-store. Shippers are a way to get customer attention since they can be set up apart from store shelves as a standalone display.

She got the help of a consultant — recommended by a founder of Stacy’s Pita Chips — to help her assess current and future production needs. And, over the years, she’s sought and received the advice of a number of business-oriented agencies and organizations: SCORE and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and the help of University of New Hampshire business school students.

By some estimates, the snack market in the United States grew from about $116.6 billion in 2017 to an estimated $150.6 billion in 2022, and is forecasted to grow to $169.6 billion in 2027.

In Foley’s estimation, her product needs to be wherever the consumer might be.

“Consumers like their food and being able to get it right now,” she said. Pharmacies have food. Clothing retailers have food. Foley is talking with a hardware store chain about getting her product on their shelves.

She is a regular attendee at trade shows to not only scope out potential new customers but get a sense of the competition out there.

Maybe, just maybe, Foley’s new space will fit her needs for the time being. She does have her eye on a machine that makes the bag then fills the bag. “That’s my next stage,” she said, though that could take a couple of years to come online.

She has about 20 employees on the floor. They work two and a half shifts of six hours each. As her operation has grown more sophisticated, she’s looking to hire a handful of new employees for such jobs as shipping fulfillment, inventory control and customer service. Port City Pretzels is a Disability Inclusive Workplace, providing employment for disadvantaged workers and those with disabilities.

She recalled discussions she’s had with manufacturers who expressed caution about depending on workers with disabilities.

“I can remember a few years ago going and talking to some people in manufacturing and they just wanted to know about productivity, the bottom line,” she said. “Yes, that’s very important to me, but my workers work pretty darn hard out there. They’re going to work as hard as anyone else. So that just has evolved; it really shouldn’t be anything special.”

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