Ralf’s Bakery owners take their product to the streets on foot, in the traditional Bavarian style
|Kacy Sigl, co-owner with her husband, Ralf, of Ralf’s Bavarian Bakery, plies their wares at a recent Farmers Market. The Sigl’s unique marketing and distribution system has Kacy walking a foot route in traditional Bavarian dress during the week, stopping at businesses along the way.|
Every Thursday morning at 10, employees at Northwest Computer on Cornwall flock around Kacy Sigl’s basket of freshly baked Bavarian-style pretzels.
Dressed in a traditional Bavarian dirndl — a white blouse beneath a moss-colored bodice and puffy skirt — Kacy gently banters with the employees as they peer into her basket.
They choose between the traditional Bavarian pretzel, cheese sticks made with Monterey Jack on a pretzel stick, Swiss cheese or Genoa salami sandwiches on a Bavarian bun with cream cheese melted in, or a dessert pretzel stick smeared with chocolate-hazelnut spread.
“We call it Bavarian treat day,” said Joshua Hill, Northwest Computer’s retail manager, of Kacy’s weekly visits. “People leave their phones and desks — she draws quite a crowd.”
“Productivity is up 24 percent since she started coming,” another employee jokes. He always gets the salami sandwich for $3.50.
Hill always buys a traditional pretzel for a $1.50 and sometimes a chocolate one for $2.50.
“They taste like something grandma would take out of the oven, plus she has the whole Bavarian outfit going,” one employee said. “But we haven’t gotten her to yodel yet.”
After the company’s approximately 44 employees clear out her handheld basket of baked goods, Kacy heads back to her van to restock.
“They cleaned me out,” she said, with the faintest hint of a German accent.
Kacy, a Bellingham native who happens to look authentically German with straw-blond hair and flushed cheeks, and her husband, Ralf, who is originally from Germany, decided to run a bakery in the traditional Bavarian style.
The result, Ralf’s Bavarian Bakery, has no storefront. Instead, Ralf bakes the pretzels in a bakery attached to their south side home and Kacy sells them at more than 100 businesses on her bi-weekly morning routes through Fairhaven and downtown on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
It’s a traditional business model used by bakers in Bavaria, Germany’s southeastern province — the birthplace of Oktoberfest where Kacy said residents still yodel and wear lederhosen.
There, every village has its bakery and pretzel kiosks on every street corner sell a million freshly baked pretzels a day, Kacy said.
The idea for their business — its smaller scale and use of expensive, organic ingredients — epitomizes the traditional German appreciation of things “klein aber fein.” It’s a German sentiment that endorses an owner’s full attention to smaller-scale business, and literally translated means “small but fine,” Kacy said.
The two met in 1993 while vacationing at the Grand Canyon — she was on a solo bike trip from Santa Fe and he was on vacation from Germany. She moved to Ralf’s hometown of Augsburg, just outside of Munich, and the two soon married.
Kacy taught English there and learned to speak German fluently — hence the faint accent — while Ralf worked as a lighting consultant for museums and galleries in Munich, as well as for the Egyptian pyramids.
Although he was a professional by day, Ralf loved the kitchen by morning and night, and did all the baking and cooking for his wife and their two sons, Oscar and Sam. This was fine with Kacy, who said she doesn’t like to do either.
They decided in 2003 to move to Bellingham, where Kacy’s family lives, because they wanted to raise their sons here, and soon conceived the pretzel bakery idea.
Back on Cornwall Avenue, after replenishing her basket from a white van with the bakery’s small logo neatly imprinted on its back door — a blue and white-checkered coat of arms with a pretzel in its center — Kacy heads to her next stop, Georgie Girls on Cornwall Avenue.
Rheanna Geuvara, Georgie Girls co-owner, said she always buys the Swiss cheese sandwich — a Bavarian bun slathered in cream cheese and layered with Swiss — for $3.50 on Thursdays when Kacy comes by.
Geuvara appreciates the convenience of having lunch delivered to her, as she is usually working alone in the store and can’t get away.
Being in the clothing business, Geuvara also appreciates the entire package of Kacy’s style.
“It’s like Leavenworth. She brings that vibe and fun with her and wears a new outfit every time,” she said. “I get excited to see what she’s wearing.”
Kacy admitted she owns 10 dirndls.
“I do it for the business,” Kacy, a self-described tomboy, deadpans when describing her costume.
“Klein aber fein”
On a surprisingly hot May morning, Ralf’s Bavarian Bakery on 30th street is cool, clean and smells like dough. The cleanliness is a “German thing,” Kacy said.
Everything is soft white: the walls, the floors, Ralf’s apron and even his Birkenstocks; as he twists and twirls the pretzel dough, jazz crackles from a small radio.
Every pretzel baker has a personal pretzel signature, he said — a bend or fold of the dough unique to the maker. His signature is to bend one pretzel end up, so it’s pointier than the other.
“We always missed pretzels when we visited Kacy’s parents here,” Ralf said in a slightly thicker accent than Kacy’s. “Here, pretzels are considered more junk food or fast food. The main thing for us is to introduce our version to people in the Northwest.”
In Germany, pretzels are more bread, less snack, and most children have a pretzel in their lunchbox every day, he said.
Germans wanting to go into certain traditional trades such as butchers, bakers, goldsmiths and hand-crafters must complete a government-regulated program consisting of a three-year apprenticeship, pass a theoretical and practical exam and then complete two years of a master’s school, Ralf said.
He said there are advantages and disadvantages to Germany’s system.
“On the one hand there are too many old-fashioned hurdles,” he said. “But on the other hand, the quality is assured.”
Instead of signing up for the whole gamut, Ralf apprenticed with “the best pretzel baker” in Augsburg for two years with the intention of learning to perfect the 700-year-old recipe and bringing it to Bellingham.
After moving here, the couple researched U.S. pretzel makers on the Internet and couldn’t find any who used all organic, healthy ingredients. At 197 calories and three grams of fiber, these are not your average mall pretzel fare.
And they are certainly not sold anywhere near the mall. In addition to Kacy’s Fairhaven and downtown delivery service route, for which businesses can sign up to get on, they sell their goods at the farmer’s market and have a wholesale business as well, selling to local restaurants such as Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro and Nimbus, Kacy said.
They also are starting to cater business meetings within city limits, she said.
Ralf does all the baking, starting at 5 a.m. every day, except Monday, and produces up to 600 pretzels a day.
Kacy does most of the rest — all the business’s selling, financing and marketing.
The couple has not taken a vacation since opening the business two years ago, but she doesn’t mind.
“I don’t need it. It’s not a very stressful job,” she said. “I’m usually done by 3:30 and it’s a lot of fun.”
She likes that most of her day is spent at home with her husband and sons, who help snap the pretzel bags shut and sweep the bakery floor after school, and sometimes help out at the farmer’s market.
And like their motto, “klein aber fein,” she doesn’t mind the small but fine income their business brings in.
“We’re not getting rich, but we don’t own a credit card, we don’t owe anything,” Kacy said. “We don’t have a storefront because we don’t want to be married to our business, we want to be married to our family.”