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A seasoned entrepreneur, Dot Henke named The Forum's 2021 Area Person of the Year

Dorothy 'Dot' Henke turned her kitchen tinkering into North Dakota-born pretzel empire

Dot Henke pours pretzels into a bowl
Dot Henke launched Dot's Homestyle Pretzels from her kitchen in Velva, North Dakota, in 2012.
Courtesy of the Dot's Pretzels website

FARGO — Ed Schafer knows a little something about North Dakota grassroots entrepreneurship. The former governor's father, Harold, turned his fledgling floor wax business, Gold Seal Co., from a struggling $900-a-year business into a $50 million-a-year juggernaut in the 1950s, when $50 million was real money.

So it's high praise when Schafer says Velva's Dorothy "Dot" Henke, founder of national snack behemoth Dot's Homestyle Pretzels, reminds him of his father.

"It's a truly homegrown business. She didn't write some code. She didn't go looking for investors or grants from the commerce department to come up with the next big thing, with the idea of scoring big," Schafer said. "She started by making a product in her kitchen for her family as a treat, and she became very successful by hard work and determination. She, like my dad, had a product that people loved and basically went and knocked on doors to sell it. It's a fun story."

It's also a profitable one. Snack food giant Hershey Co. recently finalized the acquisition of Dot's Homestyle Pretzels , along with one of Dot's manufacturing partners, for $1.2 billion.

In acquiring the company, Hershey said Dot's is the fastest-growing U.S. pretzel brand among brands with more than $10 million in annual U.S. retail sales. Hershey said Dot’s represented 55% of growth in the pretzel category over the past year. The estimated aggregate net sales for Dot's and the manufacturing partner was approximately $275 million for the 12 months that ended September 2021.

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And all of it stemmed from Henke tinkering in her kitchen a little more than a decade ago to make a tasty snack that she eventually shared with friends and family.

Her remarkable story epitomizing American entrepreneurship, ending in a billion-dollar sale that made national news, is why Forum editors deemed Henke The Forum's Area Person of the Year for 2021.

The annual designation since 2006 is bestowed upon someone who had an undeniable impact on the community in the last year, sparked changes and/or influenced discussion.

Henke declined comment for this story, citing an agreement with Hershey.

But the story of Henke and her husband Randy turning Dot's into a national brand is already part of North Dakota lore.

After attending a wedding reception in Max, North Dakota, and finding the Chex Mix a bit on the spicy side, Henke experimented with coating buttery spindle pretzels with seasonings. When she found a mixture she liked — sort of buttery, garlicky, cheesy and peppery — she started bringing the pretzels to family gatherings.

In 2011, as the Henkes were wintering in their Arizona home, a friend asked her to make a few packs of the seasoned pretzels as gifts for clients. The friend said her clients began to call looking for more bags of the pretzels.

The Henkes — Dorothy had retired from her job in financial services and Randy farmed outside Velva — began promoting their product through trade shows and selling them to gas stations and hardware stores.

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"I couldn't go face-to-face. I'm too shy," Dot Henke told Mpls.-St. Paul Magazine in 2020. "But I could send out sample boxes and call on the phone from home. I'd give them a gallon bag to sample, because you had to get it in people's mouths. I'd call at least every six weeks. I'd say, 'How much do you want me to call? Once a week? Every three weeks?' I was religious about it: When they said they wanted to be called, I called."

It's that North Dakota persistence that continues to resonate, even with those who are used to North Dakota persistence.

102419.B.FF.1MCUPS_03.jpg
Dorothy “Dot” Henke shares her family’s entrepreneurial journey at the 1 Million Cups event on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, at The Stage at Island Park in Fargo. Dot and husband Randy were headed toward retirement when making some of her seasoned pretzels in 2011 led to an unexpected business adventure.
Forum file photo

J.D. Larson, a Velva businessman and former city councilor, recalls a seminar several years ago at Minot State University that focused on growing online sales. It was a tech-heavy, futuristic look at how retailers and restaurants could use apps and websites to increase sales.

"They were even talking about huge businesses like McDonald's and how people could place orders on their phone and go pick up their food, which is very common now," Larson said. "It was all about all the tech stuff. And I was thinking about Dorothy and Randy and how they grew Dot's by putting pretzels in their car and driving them to stores, just through sheer hard work. It wasn't very high-tech. It was like, man, America is amazing."

Scott Beaulier, dean of the North Dakota State University school of business, said Henke's story is a throwback to a different era of American innovation. While U.S. manufacturers have outsourced much of their work and most tales of U.S. business success focus on tech advancements, Dot's is a story of a "tangible product" — not an app or computer program — developed through sweat equity.

"It's an inspiring story," Beaulier said. "It goes to show that those 'eureka' moments can happen to anyone. You don't have to go to college or necessarily have a big plan. If you have an idea, see it through and work hard, you can become successful in business. What she did almost seems accidental."

There is a campaign underway to have Gov. Doug Burgum name Henke the recipient of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, North Dakota's highest civilian honor given to those who receive national recognition in their fields. Of the 46 who've received the award since its inception in 1961, 10 are listed as entrepreneurs or businessmen.

Included are Harold Schafer and Burgum.

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Burgum, in a statement to The Forum, said he and his campaign staff became hooked on Dot's Pretzels in 2016 after making a stop in Velva and picking up some snacks at Velva Drug.

"Dorothy 'Dot' Henke embodies the entrepreneurial spirit of North Dakotans. She is a shining example of how an entrepreneur with a quality product, persistence and a strong commitment to customer satisfaction can rise from the smallest beginnings to enormous success," Burgum wrote.

"A humorous related story," he continued. "When my daughter, Jesse, moved to Los Angeles to pursue a film career, she began attending a young professional women’s book club. For the first meeting, Jesse did what any polite North Dakotan would do — she brought snacks, specifically a box of chocolate-covered potato chips from Widman’s Candy and a bag of Dot’s Pretzels. Gesturing to the snacks with outstretched arms, she proudly told the group, 'This is the food of my people.'"

A food of North Dakota, produced by a North Dakotan, made successful in the most North Dakotan of ways.

Past Person of the Year winners

2020: Essential workers

2019: Matt Cullen, retired NHL player and local philanthropist

2018: U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer

2017: Carson Wentz, an NFL quarterback

2016: Gov. Doug Burgum, tech mogul, real estate developer and millionaire philanthropist

2015: Jessica Thomasson, CEO of Lutheran Social Services

2014: Sherrie Skuza, widow of Fargo police Lt. Jeff Skuza

2013: Craig Bohl, former North Dakota State University football coach

2012: U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

2011: David Berg, American Crystal Sugar CEO

2010: Denny Sanford, benefactor of Sanford Health

2009: Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker

2008: Fargo-Moorhead youth for their volunteer efforts

2007: Tracy Briggs, former WDAY radio personality, organizer of World War II Honor Flights

2006: Joseph Chapman, then president of North Dakota State University

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