Halfway down Solano Avenue, a line keeps forming in front of Squabisch. The queue reappears with such regularity that the shop next door has drawn a chalk message on the sidewalk, “Hey Pretzel Folks. Please do not block entrance.” After being cooped up inside, people are willing to wait several minutes to eat one of Uli Elser’s pretzels. To make them, Elser uses the same recipe his grandmother handed down to his mother. “I’ve had to amplify it to make a big batch,” he said, “but the ratios of butter, milk and flour are pretty much the same.” The result is a traditional German pretzel—chewy, tangy and just the right amount of salt.
Elser’s “classic” pretzel anchors the menu, but the home-cook-turned-full-time-chef experiments with different ingredients each week. Unlike a bagel, the shape of a pretzel doesn’t look like an obvious vehicle to hold or carry anything. “I’ve had a lot of delicious toppings just slide off the pretzels,” he said. “But on the wider part of the pretzel I cut a deep trough with a knife.” This opens up a pocket where he can place the ingredients. When baked, cheese also becomes an adhesive that keeps everything in place.
Elser’s culinary imagination seems limitless. For Valentine’s Day, he made a heart-shaped pretzel. For the Super Bowl, he molded the dough to resemble a cheese-covered football. But the online menu features other pretzel creations such as a lobster roll, a reuben, and sweet versions with fruit and brown sugar.
Elser’s wife, Sabine, who still maintains another job in home decor, is supportive of this endeavor, both behind the scenes and front and center. When I braved the line during the recent heatwave, she sat cheerfully behind the counter, tallying up my order. Sabine, who is a German native, said that the Swabian pretzel Uli makes is different from the traditional soft pretzel that Americans are familiar with. “It has a thick belly, which really asks for something to be put into it. In Germany, they cut it open and put in butter,” she said.
Squabisch initially began several years ago as a pop-up out of the Elsers’ house. Elser joined the now-defunct Josephine food collective. Josephine was an umbrella organization that vetted home cooks who wanted to sell meals to their neighbors. At the time, Elser made a variety of German dishes including schnitzel, potato salad and pretzels. When Josephine shut down in 2018, Elser began selling his pretzels at farmers’ markets, where he established a considerable following.
He made a smart decision to only focus on the production of pretzels. “At farmers’ markets, it’s harder to pull off meals,” Elser said. “I think I had a unique take on them. Coming up with new toppings was a challenge.”
To keep up with the rising demand, Elser reached out to The Bread Project in Berkeley. “They teach free cooking and baking classes to people who are having a hard time getting back into the workplace,” Elser said. It was hard for him to find a commercial kitchen, but they agreed to rent him a space during their off-hours, at night and on the weekends.
But it was Sabine who noticed the empty storefront on Solano Avenue about a year ago. And then last October, when she noticed it was still empty, they decided to contact the landlord. The Elsers signed the lease and moved in only a matter of weeks after their first viewing. By mid-December, they were ready for a soft opening.
Squabisch opens at noon and closes when they sell out. Since it’s not open on Tuesdays, Uli is considering the idea of revisiting a meal offering. For the moment, though, the Elsers are concentrating on making enough pretzels to meet the ongoing demand. Sabine also points out that Uli’s imaginative approach might upset pretzel purists. “If you did that in Germany, you’d probably think twice about breaking the rules,” she said. “But Uli’s combinations are what make them unique.”