What happens when you take a chef and a furniture designer and put them together in Colorado's excellent craft beer taprooms? In the case of Stackhouse and Blasco, the answer is as tasty as it is inspired.
"We love drinking beer, but we don't know how to make it," Stackhouse explains when recounting the idea that launched their journey into the world of gourmet bar snacks. "We wouldn't have been able to get a job at a brewery along those lines. So, we wanted to find another way to be part of this awesome industry by creating something that would pair well with craft beer."
They quickly settled on pretzels. "It seemed like a natural fit," Stackhouse says. "Pretzels and beer go way back as a great combination. Plus, when you look at the pretzel landscape, you can find a lot of people making great soft pretzels but few who make delicious crunchy ones."
Though they began by buying day-old pretzels from another local company and having them turned into crunchy pieces, they soon realized that they wanted to control their own supply chain. "About three months in, we bought kitchen time and began making our own pretzels," Stackhouse recalls. "That enabled us to control the ingredients, quality, and quantity."
Today, they produce nearly 300 pounds a week in a 900-square foot shared kitchen space. Two hours of each seven-hour shift are spent physically rolling and shaping dough. The pretzels are then chilled to arrest the proofing process before taking a dip in a diluted lye solution. "This is a traditional German technique that gives them the characteristic dark brown, shiny, and bubbly exterior once they are baked," Stackhouse explains.
After the baked pretzels cool, four people spend more than two hours tearing them into little pieces. "We later put the pieces back in the oven for a couple hours at a really low temperature to dry them out and shelf-stabilize them," he adds. Once the pretzel pieces are nice and crunchy, seasonings are added and the product is packaged by hand.
Stackhouse uses local, non-GMO ingredients whenever possible, including sunflower oil and organic flour. He also tries to keep his seasonings chemical-free. "I try to stay away from technologically derived flavorings and keep with spices and seasonings you can buy in the grocery store," he says.
On Tap Kitchen's Salt & Malt Vinegar pretzel pieces are their best seller, and they recently added Honey Mustard as a permanent flavor. Other varieties include Original Salted, Sour Cream & Onion, Sriracha, and Cinnamon & Sugar, along with a rotating seasonal only available at breweries. "Our new rotating flavor is White Cheddar and Jalapeno," Stackhouse says.
Pretzel lovers can find On Tap Kitchen's crunchy snacks at more than four dozen breweries, distilleries, tap houses, cafes, and independent grocers in Boulder, Longmont, Broomfield, Denver, and Northern Colorado.
Challenges: Though demand for On Tap Kitchen's pretzel snacks is sky-high, and the team has doubled production this year, Stackhouse says they won't be able to grow much further unless they can remove a bottleneck in production.
"We are constantly struggling to get additional access to the kitchen," he explains. "Adding shifts has been difficult because the kitchen is busy, and that is limiting us. Sometimes we worry that we're not going to be able to make enough, and it's a little bit stressful."
Opportunities: Once the company finds a way to increase production, On Tap Kitchen's opportunities are virtually endless. "We'd love to be in Lucky's Markets, Vitamin Cottage, and Whole Foods someday," says Stackhouse. "At the same time, working with independent stores and breweries is awesome. At least in the short term, we're prioritizing growth towards supplying other small businesses."
Needs: Stackhouse and Blasco would love to finance a kitchen of their own or find a production space they can share with one or two similar businesses.
They've also been contemplating ways to automate the most time-consuming portion of their production process: "We've been talking to companies that might be able to make a machine to tear the pretzels up for us," Stackhouse says. "But in the short term, we'll probably just bring on a couple more people. Our labor costs aren't really that much relative to our operating income and as long as we can keep finding people who want to make a living wage while tearing up pretzels, that's alright with me."