FARGO — It was crunch time at the latest 1 Million Cups Fargo.
Dorothy “Dot” Henke, founder of the wildly popular Dot’s Homestyle Pretzels, and her husband and partner, Randy, were the featured guests Wednesday, Oct. 23, at The Stage at Island Park as part of “Women’s Entrepreneurship Week.”
With snack bags of the eponymous pretzels in hand, audience members were treated to the story of the accidental entrepreneur from Velva, N.D., who failed at retiring, and instead built a snack-tastic business.
“Well, I tell you what, it wasn’t anticipated. It definitely was not a goal of mine,” Henke said. “I was going to retire, but…
During the Christmas season of 2011, a relative in Arizona asked Dorothy if I she would make up some of her special-recipe seasoned pretzels for customers in Arizona.
The “small-town recipe, big time flavor” pretzel twists were a hit.
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The “phone rang off the hook. And we went, ‘Oh, my God, maybe we should do something. Are we retiring?” Dorothy said.
Everything they did was learn as they went. And somehow, most everything seemed to come out right.
“So, our No. 1 thing that we did is we came up with our brand,” Dorothy said, in her lilting North Dakota accent.
Originally, the brand was going to be “Dorothy’s Pretzels” and then she thought, “Oh, my God, this sounds like an old lady!” she told the crowd, drawing howls of laughter.
They went to a lot of Pride of Dakota shows and other trade shows, then sought out a commercial kitchen. They later bought a run-down building in Velva and refurbished it, opening there in November 2012.
One of their early display stands was blue, “but it was cheap, you know!” she said, drawing more laughs.
Dot’s buys its pretzel twists from a larger firm, and the firm’s employees coat them in oil and a blend of seasons, bake, cool and repackage them.
For almost two and a half years, they hand-bagged and weighed each bag of pretzels “because I just didn’t know where we were going,” she said.
Dorothy and Randy said help from the Pride of Dakota program was key to their success.
“If they don’t have the answer, they get back to you with an answer. They help you in every way possible. They couldn’t have supported me better, ” Dorothy said.
“They were a tremendous asset,” Randy said. “People had a willingness to share their story, share their knowledge.”
If there was an early goof, it was Dorothy being a bit too willing to take customer feedback.
Apparently, midnight snacking leads to marriage proposals.
“Stupid me. I put my phone number on the bag. I don’t know what I was thinkin’,” Dorothy said.
“It was always that 2 o’clock phone call,” she said. “They were munching away and slurring …”
By 2015, Dot’s opened a plant in Goodyear, Ariz., near where Dorothy and Randy have their winter home.
In 2017, they opened up a facility in Lenexa, Kan., because it was a centralized location for distribution.
Now, more than 200 employees make and sell nearly 1.6 billion Dot’s pretzels for Americans’ snacking regimens.
Over time, the company added a pretzel rub for meat and fish, and Mr. Dot Bar candy bars, turning what was once pretzel waste into money-making products.
A new flavor of pretzels - southwest style - is also planned for the spring 2020.
As Dot’s grew, Dorothy and Randy worked on getting good people to help.
They now have a CEO, plant managers, accounting and customer service representatives, and a marketing team, and the food safety and supply chains to run Dot’s Pretzels.
In August 2018, they needed market leverage, business expertise and capital to continue to grow the company, and paired up with R.D. Offutt.
R.D. Offutt gave Dot's the oompf needed to smooth out supply issues and expand markets, Randy said.
“We just needed more expertise. … We needed someone with some leverage to level out the playing field,” he said.
“It seems like you have to be the big dog to be able to get in. If we were going to do anything with Dot’s, we had to take that leap,” Dorothy said.
Overall, Dorothy says they’ve been incredibly lucky. The product has been an easy sell.
“When you’d call people, they were excited. I was never a bother to anybody They always wanted to talk to me, you know, because I have a product that they made money on. It made it fun to talk to people,” she said. “It was just fun.”
She encouraged other entrepreneurs not to give up their dreams.
“Don’t give up. Just don’t give up. I can’t think about my failures. … Every time I felt like I was down at the bottom, someone would call me and tell me another story,” she said.