The pretzel is taking over the American stomach.
Particularly as a holding vehicle for burgers and sandwiches. 7-Eleven has just begun a national rollout of its first pretzel sandwich. And next week, Wendy's, which arguably started the national pretzel mania with its summer rollout of the wildly successful Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger, is about to introduce yet another pretzel product: a chicken sandwich served on a pretzel bun.
Now the pretzel craze that began this summer has extended into fall with 7-Eleven's Diablo Chicken Ranch Sandwich and Wendy's upcoming Pretzel Pub Chicken sandwich. A record 160 pretzel products were rolled last year, vs. fewer than 60 back in 2009, reports research specialist Mintel.
And this may be just the beginning.
Mintel's new-products guru, Lynn Dornblaser, is even projecting the possibility that some sort of pretzel doggie treat will hit the market. After all, many folks love to feed their pooches dog-ified versions of what they eat themselves. "It seems inevitable," says Dornblaser.
So many restaurants already have jumped in - and some, out already - that pretzel buns are almost becoming common. Blimpie got into the action by putting pretzel bread on its permanent menu in June. Sonic rolled out a Cheesy Bacon Pretzel Dog over the summer. Last month, Ruby Tuesday rolled out four different pretzel burgers and Dunkin' Donuts introduced a Pretzel Roll Roast Beef Sandwich. Red Robin just brought back its Octoberfest Burger served on a pretzel bun. Even Starbucks has a Stoneground Dijon Bavarian-Style Pretzel - with the mustard inside.
Maybe that's why pretzel bread is the fastest-growing sandwich bread, with a 36% jump on sandwich menus from 2011 to 2012, reports research specialist Datassential.
But fast-food's pretzel innovations aren't limited to sandwiches. Back in April, Dairy Queen rolled out what it called a Choco-Covered Peanut Butter Pretzel Blizzard.
For 7-Eleven, plopping a sandwich inside a pretzel bun was a no-brainer, says Kelly Buckley, vice president of fresh foods innovation. "We know that one of the first senses you want to hit is a visual wow."
Customers' requests drove Wendy's to add the Pretzel Pub Chicken sandwich, which rolls out Monday, says spokesman Denny Lynch.
Pretzels have been transplanted into just about everything this year. Just this month, Aldi rolled out Pretzel Bread Stuffed Sandwiches to compete with Hot Pockets. Wal-Mart rolled out Great Value Parmesan Garlic-Flavored Pretzel Balls. And last month, Nature Valley rolled out Chocolate Pretzel Nut granola bars.
What's driving all this pretzel-mania?
For one thing, says Dornblaser, the new products expert, pretzels taste yummy and crunchy, but don't typically come loaded with all the fat grams of other breads and pastries.
Look for crushed pretzels showing up in fancier entrees soon, she suggests, in the form of pretzel-crusted fish or pretzel-crusted chicken.
And - hold the mustard - perhaps even a pretzel-crusted pie.