Interview with Freelance Writer Karissa Hearn. John LeVicchi, founder The Hangover Pretzel Company, began the company with his wife, Lois, from their own kitchen in Freehold, NJ in 2008.
1. You and your wife began The Hangover Pretzel Company two years ago from your kitchen. Today, you offer four unique varieties and distribute to New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. What inspired the two of you to start the company?
My wife, Lois, has been making these pretzels for well over 20 years. We would bring these pretzels to parties and my son’s soccer games. They were a hit! In 2007, I began working for a gourmet soda company, so I had contacts at high-end, gourmet shops. It took me over a year before I finally pulled the trigger and asked my first store, Blue Apron in Brooklyn, to try them. They are still with us today!
2. The snack-food industry is huge. There are generally entire aisles filled with reliable brands of snacks in every grocery store. What do the Hangover Pretzels have that other snacks don’t and what is it that keeps the customers coming back?
Two things. Our clear selling tool is our name. People do a double take when they read the name on the package. The second is our distinctive taste. If you are looking for honey mustard, BBQ or chocolate-covered pretzels, we are NOT the company for you. But if you want something that is unique, delicious and addicting then we ARE the company for you. We offer our pretzels in Original-Lemon Pepper, Cayasabi, Brown Sugar Cinnamon, and Sweet Heet. That's what keeps our customers coming back for more.
3. Starting a company from scratch with just two people can be difficult. Between marketing, developing, packaging, shipping, and keeping up with baking hundreds of pounds of pretzels each week, what would you say has been the biggest challenge thus far?
All of it! Our first package was a small plastic container with a really poor homemade label on it that had no pizzazz at all. Luckily, an old friend helped us out with the graphic design. Also, getting employees and shop owners to promote us is a hurdle we can’t ignore. I always leave samples with managers and have in-store tastings. I want everyone on staff to know the pretzels so they can talk about them.
4. You sell the Hangover Pretzel Company products in local stores and markets throughout New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. What is it like making and maintaining those connections in such a tight economy?
A local NJ magazine recently ran an article about "Artisanal America" that basically says that even in tough times people are willing to pay more for homemade products. Thankfully, I do think this is true. We have about a 65% retention rate in our customer base, which I think is great in respect to the times.
5. Hangover Pretzels are made from Utz pretzels. What is your business relationship with them like and why did you choose Utz as your supplier over other pretzel manufacturers?
The price is right. Originally, we had been buying barrels from a local wholesaler. After taking a tour of the Utz factory in May 2009, we discovered that the price was half of what we were paying for large bags of broken Utz pretzels. The money we would save made the three-hour drive each way worthwhile. Unfortunately however, the new manager keeps telling me he plans to discontinue this purchasing option. But we still drive up every month hoping the program continues.
6. How did your educational background and previous work experience directly help you with development, marketing, and sales of the Hangover Pretzel Company? What aspects of the business did you have to learn along the way?
I was a marketing major in college and spent the majority of my time in the furniture business after that. I learned that it was essential to make myself stand out. My first priority is making each account feel as if they are my most important. I’ve carried over relationships and customers from all of my past jobs.
7. You have a significant number of fans on The Hangover Pretzel Company Facebook page and it seems to be very interactive. What are some ways you use this and other social media outlets to your marketing advantage?
Every few months we do a blitz to get people to suggest us to their friends in order to boost our fan base. We'll do giveaways promos, polls, and contests, but honestly, these efforts don’t seem to be pulling in more sales directly. We've received a handful of orders for sampler packs, but nothing major. We haven't tried Twitter yet, but I'm thinking I might have to draw it into the marketing plan.
8. The Hangover Pretzel Company just recently launched Sweet Heet, a combination of both the cinnamon and wasabi spices. You’re definitely not afraid to experiment, are you? What is the process like for developing new seasonings?
Sweet Heet was a complete accident. My wife accidently mixed the two ingredient bowls from the Caysabi and the brown Sugar Cinnamon. The oil tasted hot but the kitchen smelled sweet. Aggravated that I had just wasted 4 batches of pretzels, I was surprised by their tastiness. We sent barrels back to school with our son, Justin, and his friends and roommates went nuts for them.
9. You currently have four main flavors of Hangover Pretzels. What should your fans expect for the future? Do you have any other plans for expansion?
We did try another "dessert" flavor similar to brown sugar cinnamon last year but could not get it right. So for now we are sticking with the four. However, I do have the formula and name for our next taste sensation to be launched by early summer. You'll have to wait and see...