9:00am PT by Chris Gardner
How Actor Adam Shapiro Turned Pandemic Cooking Experiment Into Bustling Soft Pretzel Business
Don’t get it twisted: There are many starting points to the story of how actor Adam Shapiro found himself to be a professional soft pretzel maker and the face of the newly-launched Shappy Pretzel Co.
There’s the beginning beginning: Shapiro hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the doughy delectables are as ubiquitous as hot dogs in New York City and almost as iconic as Rocky, cheesesteaks and the Liberty Bell. (Almost.) He grew up eating the street food specialty, picking them up at school, taking them to parties and family events, and snacking on a few at sports stadiums.
Philadelphia soft pretzels aren’t the typical mall variety one might find at Auntie Anne’s or the like. What makes Philly soft pretzels special is the oblong shape and the fact that they are baked in a close-set row so they stick together coming off the pan.
But also, the flavor. “It’s not the awesome, buttery thing that Wetzel’s does and it’s not a huge thing like a super pretzel; it is its own thing,” Shapiro explains to The Hollywood Reporter. “They have a lightness to them and they are soft and salty and almost have a bagel-like quality.” That means, people often eat more than one in a sitting, he adds: “You get two or more…or six pretzels for two people.”
It’s one of the hometown treasures he missed most upon moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career in 2002. Since then, he’s always kind of “had this ticking clock of when I needed to get home for a Philly pretzel,” explains the actor whose credits include Steve Jobs, The Affair and the upcoming The Good Lord Bird and Mank. “I slowly run out of pretzel gas and I need to go back and fill up. There’s never anything quite like it that I’ve found in L.A.”
Then there is the beginning that can be traced back to the start of quarantine when he struck out on a culinary adventure that led to a rather experimental cooking process. In March, Shapiro was with his wife, Scandal actress Katie Lowes, in New York City where she was filming a role in Netflix’s limited series Inventing Anna. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced a production shutdown, the couple — along with young son Albee — returned to the West Coast where they could quarantine at home in L.A.
“Just like everybody else in the world, I was eating my feelings and the greatest comfort food is the kind of stuff you ate as a kid,” notes Shapiro, who, at the same time, was riding high thanks to Netflix’s pandemic hit Never Have I Ever in which he stars as the lovable Mr. Shapiro. “I started baking and cooking like crazy and was Instagramming all of it.”
He then announced to his followers that he was going to attempt his hometown favorite no matter how many attempts it took to nail it. But he finally did. “Through trial and error, I tried a lot of different things and would hand them out to friends and neighbors,” he explains, acknowledging that he became something of a pretzel bandit. “But then, I took a batch out of the oven and tasted it and was like, ‘What the f…?’”
Shapiro credits the perfect combination of pretzel ingredients for the coup, including the ever-finicky baker’s lye. “That’s what makes a pretzel a pretzel,” he says.
The pretzel saga continued with a beginning that can be traced to Ryan Seacrest by way of Lowes. She had been filling in for Kelly Ripa on Live with Kelly and Ryan from their living room. It was a team effort with a pregnant Lowes (carrying baby number two due around Thanksgiving) handling on-camera duties while Shapiro did all the production work off-camera.
Speaking of on-camera though, the subject of what Seacrest had been snacking on amid the pandemic came up, and Lowes suggested he try some of her husband’s soft pretzels. So, Shapiro jumped on camera to say “I got you,” and he made sure to do just that by sending him some the very next day. (He even woke up at 3 a.m. for the VIP customer).
“The next time they went on air, as Katie and Ryan were talking, he kept talking about the pretzels,” Shapiro said, amused at what he’d been able to accomplish. The positive response led him to create a quick website boasting only an email address for orders. “I got 400 emails the next day.”
That was the first week of August and for the 45 days that followed, he went on a pretzel-making spree, literally building the business from scratch and naming it Shappy Pretzel Co. after his well-known nickname. He made everything at home and had customers picking up the pretzels curbside until the demand grew in such a way that he had to figure out an alternate solution.
Lowes was immediately supportive even if she also recognized that the operation had outgrown their kitchen. “She’s the most supportive ever about it,” praises Shapiro. “She’s amazing. Her thing has always been, if it’s something that makes you happy, go for it.”
The solution he went for was to partner with BreadBar in El Segundo, a large-scale bakery where dough pros could help by scaling the operation, while two sisters and café owners at his favorite local spot, Gourmet 47, offered to be the pick-up location as an ongoing pop-up of sorts.
His website takes orders for Thursday through Sunday and time slots make reservations and pick-ups a breeze. To say that it’s taken off is a bit of an understatement. Shappy Pretzel Co. is now selling between 800-900 soft pretzels per day at $10 for three. Early fans include stars like Bradley Cooper (who tasted one when Shapiro dropped by the set of his film at a request from craft services), Jon Hamm, Henry Winkler, Lee Daniels, Busy Philipps, Leslie Odom Jr. and Nicolette Robinson, Patrick J. Adams, Paul F. Tompkins and Troian Bellisario, among others.
Shapiro says he’s not sure if he’s rolling in the dough just yet, but he’s certainly not salty about the economics. “I haven’t lost any money, that’s for sure,” he says. “I want to continue to use this to make people happy during this shit show of a time.”
He loves promoting it on social media (“Our Instagram is a party”) and seeing the smiles on his customer's faces, especially the ones who, like him, hail from Philly and the ones who have been driving up from places like Orange County. “If I can keep this going, there’s definitely a future for this company. I can see it becoming a national pretzel brand. I’ve been talking to people to figure out ways to expand Shappy Pretzel all over the city, possibly expand it to the East Coast.”
That made be last of the beginnings in this story but this is most certainly not the end of the story for Shappy Pretzel Co. “I have some secret things I’m working on with secret folks,” Shapiro teases, revealing only that it might involve accoutrements like dipping sauces, mustards, things of that nature. “I’m just trying to bide my time and give people what they want.”
And to anyone who knows Shapiro, what it has given him is just another reason to have fun and spread a little joy. “It’s completely shocking to me — if you were to tell me five weeks ago that I would now have a pretzel company, I would just say, ‘Like, what?’” he says with a laugh. “But the pretzels are that good, and we’re having a lot of fun with it.”
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A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.