Thursday, September 29, 2022

A colorful twist: Crofton’s Pretzels debuts larger bright space, slated to serve beer by October

Brian Granger and Aidan Crofton are partners in Crofton’s Pretzels. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Two old friends whose camaraderie grew when they started the band Awkward Family Photos in 2014 are joining forces again almost a decade later. Rather than falling behind their guitars in unison, Aidan Crofton and Brian Granger are creating a different syncopation, twisting and kneading pretzel dough behind a wall of ovens.

The business partners are launching a new location of Crofton’s Pretzels at 1620 Market St. on Saturday after six months rehabbing the former Shop-N-Go space — a gas station that got its start in the 1940s. Crofton signed the lease on the 2,000-square feet only two-and-half years after he opened Crofton’s in a strip mall on Oleander Drive.

“I had my eye on this building for a while,” he said.

He closed the Oleander store in March to focus on renovations at Market Street.

The Shop-N-Go is positioned at one of the city’s busiest intersections: the corner of Market and 17th streets wherein thousands of vehicles drive by daily. The convenience store was shuttered for two years due to Covid. 

Crofton lives in the nearby Carolina Place and everyday he passed by the store, he said he would envision his pretzel shop there — the 16th-Street-facing wall of windows showcasing his team inside, baking over two dozen versions of the twisty treats.

“I just got in at the right time when the owner was in limbo,” Crofton said.  

As the opportunity presented itself to expand, the baker called Granger to join the team.  

“The idea is we can grow this together,” Crofton said. “Two heads are better than one.”

The former Marine had been running his shop on Oleander only with the help of his wife since day one and a few family friends whose kids wanted to work some shifts every now and then. Granger admits he was skeptical at first when Crofton told him about opening a pretzel shop in 2019. 

“I was like, ‘If it is not deep fried, it’s probably not going to work in the South,’” Granger said with a laugh. “But he thrived — I mean, he opened up right before the pandemic and it just took off.” 

Crofton’s love for pretzels began as a child. He grew up in Philadelphia where the baked goods were served in school once a week and on every street corner. However, he didn’t have the desire to really make the items firsthand until he left the Marine Corps and decided to become an entrepreneur. 

Unlike many people who start food businesses because they realize they’re really good at making something, Crofton said he approached it backward. First, he finessed his business concept for the pretzelry and then began playing around with the ratio of flour, yeast, salt and food-grade lye water to create the perfect artisan pretzel.

“I got very adamant about the recipe,” he said, which he has been training Granger on over the last few months.

“I have the recipe down pat,” Granger said assuredly. “It’s just the twisting and efficiency we are working on now. This guy is a pro — I have some catching up to do.”

Crofton said at Oleander Drive he was hand-twisting upward of 2,000 pretzels on some days — the more robust orders usually came from events like Oktoberfest. He has also sold pretzels at local breweries, worked with Aramark at UNCW, the Wilmington Convention Center and New Hanover High School, located a block away from the new bakery.

The light coverings in Crofton’s are drawn by patrons. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Crofton’s menu will feature the traditional Bavarian twist round or a Philly-style version. The latter takes the shape of an elongated figure eight and is baked in bricks that pull apart.

“It changes the texture and density of the product a little bit,” Crofton said. ”It’s a little chewier.”

Customers will place their orders by filling out a sheet of paper — “PT’s style,” Crofton said — to be handed over at the counter. Around two dozen flavors can be chosen from, whether traditional salted and unsalted or stuffed varieties aplenty, both savory (spinach artichoke, pimento and bacon) and sweet (Nutella and a multitude of pie fillings).

“We will introduce as many new styles as we can,” Crofton said. “Our customers often come up with flavors and tell us what we should try.”

In fact, it’s how the popular dill pickle option came to be. Crofton said he puts cream cheese, pickles and other ingredients in the food processor to blend before stuffing into the fresh-baked pretzel and serving with whatever dip the customer prefers. Crofton’s offers cheese, spicy and Polish mustard, butter, icing and marinara. 

All pretzel dough is vegan — though some toppings may not be. The company also has a vegan cheese. 

The new location is stacked with a cooler wall holding over 150 sodas, seven times more from the 20-plus selection it once had. Crofton will be adding beer to the mix as well, with local options and microbrews from other areas filling out the cooler. He is most excited about the lager to be served on tap; it was created with the brewmasters at Mad Mole Brewing. 

“It’s going to be called Baker’s Brew,” Crofton said. “It’s a marzen dunkel — an amber that is brewed with our pretzels. It’s a nice, easy German-style beer.”

Crofton said ABC permits should be cleared at the shop by the beginning of October. 

A food truck is another portion of the Crofton’s expansion plan underway.

“It will connect us to the community more,” Granger said.

Granger — known for his reputation as a standup comic — has been a part of the food and beverage industry locally for years. He helped open Ogden Tap Room and worked at J. Michael’s Philly Deli; he also has experience working for national brands like Red Robin and Trader Joe’s.

He called his new office exciting — not only because he believes in the product but it’s physically uplifting. The striped walls outside and inside are painted ochre yellow, burnt red and deep teal. 

Crofton said there is a science to the psychological effects color will have on the brain. Though he remains mum on how he hopes his choice of palette impacts others (“I plead the fifth”).

At the very least, the bright building is driving conversations as people pass by and wonder what’s happening. 

Light coverings on the bakery’s ceiling will keep them talking and perhaps contributing to its design as well. Crofton welcomes customers to decorate the coverings and puts them on display: the Beatles walking along Abbey Road with “Crofton’s Pretzels” in the background of one, waves crash on a shore in another, with doodles from HP Fangs shining bright below it. 

Crofton’s brother also drew the pretzel logo into variations of a cartoon character, framed throughout the space.

Color pops inside the former gas station. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“It’s just fun,” Granger said, “especially the yellow bathroom doors.”

Crofton’s seats a little over 30 people inside and outside there will be additional tables. The space is big enough to host entertainment, though Crofton and Granger aren’t yet decided on how to approach it, considering residential neighbors nearby.

“We may get the band back together again,” Granger joked.

“Who knows — I do have new material,” Crofton added. “But, really, we don’t have time for hobbies anymore. When we aren’t baking pretzels, we are with our families.”

Crofton’s will open Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The owners will have a giveaway for a free pair of Built to Spill tickets, which play Greenfield Lake Amphitheater this month.


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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