Undercover with Philly pretzel boss

Posted: April 26, 2012

Friday night’s episode of Undercover Boss will have a distinctly local flavor — the salty, loamy taste of soft pretzels. That’s because the subject of the show is Bensalem native Dan DiZio, the CEO of the Philly Pretzel Factory.

The drama on the CBS reality show promises to play out differently as well. Usually, the corporate chieftains haven’t lifted anything heavier than a phone their entire careers. So they tend to experience trouble once they take on disguises to perform their companies’ most physically demanding, entry-level jobs. The incognito CEO of Chiquita, for instance, spoiled about a ton of lettuce in the processing plant before they shut him down.

But DiZio, 40, built the Pretzel Factory from the dough up. For the first year in 1998, it was just DiZio and his college roommate, Len Lehman, working 18 hour days, seven days a week in a storefront in Mayfair, catching three hours of sleep a night atop the 100 pound sacks of flour they bought at Sam’s Club.

Today, the Philly Pretzel Factory has 122 locations in eight states.

So when CBS sent a punked-up platinum DiZio to work at four franchise locations, as a pretzel twister, a baker, a delivery man, and even a stint as the company’s mascot, Phil E., he had to work hard to pretend he didn’t know what he was doing. Well, except for that final task, which turned out to be quite a challenge.

“You’ll see in the episode, I’m no dancer,” he says during an interview at the company headquarters, above the original store on Frankford Avenue.

What he is is a pretzel guy, from way, way back.

By one of those fateful coincidences, DiZio’s neighbor growing up, Steve Nuel owned the Kensington Soft Pretzel Bakery. Shortly after the boy’s father died with frightening suddenness of lung cancer, Nuel put him to work selling the Philly staple at traffic lights on Roosevelt Boulevard for a 50/50 split.

When the other 11-year-olds saw the impressive roll of singles DiZio was walking around with, they all wanted in. Within a year, like a crusty Artful Dodger, DiZio was running crews of boys.

“Steve would call me up and say, ‘I need 45 guys’ ”, DiZio says. “This was before cell phones and computers. I used to get on the phone at 6 in the morning and start calling guys. We would meet in the parking lot of the Krispy Kreme on Old Lincoln Highway and Steve would pick us up and drop us on corners from Sesame Place to Harbison Avenue.”

In return for his recruitment work, Dan would get a kickback and his choice of corners. Roosevelt and Southhampton, for instance, was prime real estate. Depended on how the lights were running.

Showing a work ethic that still serves him, DiZio worked after school, weekends and seven days a week in the summer. When his mother remarried, his stepfather, an FBI agent and former philly cop, told him he could continue his all-consuming enterprise as long as he made honors in school.

After graduating from East Stroudsburg University, DiZio got a job as a stockbroker. But the siren song of the paperclip pretzel kept calling to him. He sold Lehman on the idea of starting their own business. If anything, he oversold him.

“I told him, ‘This is the greatest thing. You go in at 3:30 in the morning to bake. You’re done work by nine.’ I told him I had sold pretzels as a kid. I didn’t tell him I had never made them.”

They envisioned the business as a wholesale bakery, selling in bulk to convenience stores, gas stations, hospitals and schools. They chose the Frankford Avenue location purely because the rent was considerably cheaper than the warehouses they had been looking at on State Road.

What they hadn’t counted on was the smell of freshly baked pretzels wafting through the neighborhood. “By 9 o’clock that first morning, there were 45 people on line at our door,” DiZio recalls. “We couldn’t keep up with the demand. Literally I would be standing by the oven, pulling pretzels out, putting them right in the bag blazing hot and giving them to the customers.

“That first day we worked until 5. That’s when the line died down.”

Things sort of steamrolled from there. In addition to landing some big accounts at locations like the airport, the walk-up business continued to grow. It was overwhelming for a two-man operation.

“We had no employees,” says DiZio. “We didn’t know how to get employees. We were just trying to get through the next five minutes.

“Now we’re three months into it and we haven’t had a day off,” he continues, then chuckles. “My partner thought he’d be out golfing every day by 9:30 and now he’s working 21 hour days. In fact ,we had this one account, when we’d drive there in the morning to deliver the pretzels, I used to have to put my car in park at the red lights because I would fall asleep as soon as I pulled up to the light. If I left it in drive, I would drift into traffic so I had to keep it in park at every red light.”

Cupid had to slather his arrow in mustard to get DiZio’s attention.

“My mom set me up on a blind date,” he says. “The first night, we went out to New Hope. Inevitably back then I’d get a call on a Friday night.” Big orders due before dawn and some people didn’t show up for their shifts.

“The next thing you know, it’s midnight and she was in high heels twisting pretzels at the philly Pretzel Factory on a first date. I knew she’d make for a good wife.”

He and Nicole have been married for six years and have two sons — Danny, 4 and Michael, 1. The boys weren’t too happy with the makeover CBS gave their dad for Undercover Boss.

“They were freaked out,” he says. “They wouldn’t even kiss me goodbye. It was scary for them. My wife wasn’t digging it, either.”

The disguise had to be transformative because DiZio is a hands-on CEO, and his picture is in the monthly newsletter that goes out to all Pretzel Factory employees.

Didn’t the fact that the new guy came to work with a camera crew raise any suspicions? “Well, you’ll see in the show that one person does figure it out,” he says. “But they come up with a ruse. The story in my case was that I was doing a job swaps program. I was in data processing, but hated it and wanted to get into another career. So I’d do your job for a day and one day next week you’d do mine. Then when you came in for the swap you’d find out who I really was.”

The entire process, taped over 11 days at the tail end of 2011, went smoothly. The biggest challenge DiZio faces these days is expanding the franchise into southern states where they clearly lack the Philadelphia mind-set.

“The idea of pretzels for breakfast, lunch and dinner isn’t as strong when you get into Virginia, North Carolina, places like that,” DiZio says.

Yo, what is wrong with those people?

Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv. Read his blog, “Dave on Demand,” at www.philly.com/dod.

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