He became a father at 18, dropped out of school and found a factory job to make ends meet, until hard work and a twist of fate led him to a fortune he’d never imagined.
It's almost like a fairytale. A little Jewish street kid from the wrong side of the tracks buys some defunct assets and grows the enterprise into what today amounts to a $600 million a year company.
Gerry Shreiber’s success began at the ballpark, home not only to the hallowed hot dog, but that other classic stadium snack: the salty jumbo pretzel. This doughy concoction might never have been a hit were it not for Shreiber’s vision of a pretzel empire.
“Every time I see one of our fans going up there and buying it, I feel a special kind, you know how the back of your neck kind of — you get that little feather feeling in there,” Shreiber said on a recent visit a to Philadelphia Phillies home game.
As CEO of J&J Snack Foods, Shreiber is the man behind the pretzel. With a roll and a twist, J&J churns out a half-billion pretzels a year. It all began in 1971 when Schreiber struck up a conversation with a salesman who told him about a failing pretzel company.
“A couple of weeks later, I bought the assets of a bankrupt soft pretzel company for $72,000,” he said.
That $72,000 bought Shreiber some old baking equipment and an eight-person company selling a little-known product.
“The traditional stadiums, baseball stadiums, in those days had a very limited menu,” he said. “They didn't know what a soft pretzel was.”
Convincing stadiums, movie theaters and other vendors that soft pretzels could be the next big thing took some creativity.
“It didn't have a name,” said Shreiber. “So I thought — ‘Super Pretzel.’ Super Pretzel, Superman. And I found these special trees with hooks on it. And I built a glass box around it. And we attached the motor to it. And all of a sudden we had a revolving tree.”
With that, the super pretzel was born and super sales quickly followed. At the company’s factory in Pennsauken, N.J., J&J bakes 2 million pretzels a day.
“I instructed my people that I want to have a line which feeds the dough automatically, very little labor, that will produce 5,000 pounds an hour with hardly anybody touching the product,” he said. “And my chief engineer said to me at the time, ‘Gerry, you're dreaming.’ And I said, ‘All right, we'll call it the dream line.’ ”
J&J has made Forbes magazine’s list of the “200 Best Small Companies” seven times since it went public in 1986. And it doesn’t stop with pretzels. Shreiber has a knack for turning around distressed snack food brands — recent acquisitions include Fruit-A-Freeze and Whole Fruit sorbets.
The simple, soft, salty pretzel has brought him a personal fortune worth over $100 million.
Shreiber also has a soft spot for animals and keeps 30 horses, six dogs, five cats, two goats, one pig and one bunny on his New Jersey farm. He is a prominent donor to animal's charities — including the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine — and starts every day with a walk on the farm, animals in tow, dreaming up the next super snack food idea.
“I've been doing this now for 36 years,” he said. “And if I tack that on — for the next 36 years as much — I think maybe that'll set a record.”
For each of those 36 years, he’s seen steady growth: 144 consecutive quarters of increased sales and profits.
Something for budding entrepreneurs to chew on.