gus' pretzels photo by david kovaluk

Gus' Pretzels is a St. Louis landmark

Pretzels are history! Indeed, stories about the salty, carb-based snack go back almost 1,500 years. “The first story I remember growing up is that pretzels were invented by monks as a gift to kids for learning their prayers,” explained current Gus’ Pretzels owner Gus Koebbe. According to him, pretzels should actually be upside-down: “It’s supposed to symbolize crossing your arms, which is how children would pray.” Koebbe also said that during weddings in the old days, people would break pretzels for good luck. “They definitely have a long history and mythology,” he said.

The story of Gus’ Pretzels, however, began in St. Louis in 1920, when Koebbe’s great-grandfather, Frank Ramsperger, started making and selling pretzels as a street vendor off Jefferson Avenue. “Retail wasn’t really big then,” Koebbe explained. “It was just pretzels.” Ramsperger had a daughter, Marcella, who married Gus August Koebbe, a World War II veteran that eventually decided to take a chance on the family business. Ramsperger bought the current Gus’ building at 1820 Arsenal St. – a former bakery conveniently located across the highway from the Anheuser-Busch brewery – in the 1950s.

Koebbe, the third Gus in his family, now has a little Gus of his own, Gus Koebbe IV. “We brought him down here for the first time after a year, around his first birthday, and we gave him the first taste of a pretzel and he was hooked,” Koebbe said, laughing. “But we’re not going to push him. My dad didn’t push me.” Koebbe also has two daughters, Reese and Susan, who are welcome in the biz if they’re interested. “If they want to do it, cool. Whatever makes them happy,” he said.

gus' pretzels in benton park // photo by david kovaluk

Should they join, they’ll follow in the footsteps of their mother, Laura, and their grandmother, Suzanne, who, Koebbe pointed out, have contributed much to Gus’ success through their involvement in the financial and retail aspects of the business. “It was my mom who really designed and grew the retail side,” he commented. A big part of that was developing Gus’ menu, which today includes baked goods, sandwiches, dips and more; its success with local brewery workers looking for more substantial snacks was integral to helping Gus’ grow. 

Gus’ most popular item “is definitely the pretzel stick – that’s kind of what we’re known for,” Koebbe said. “St. Louis kind of invented the pretzel stick, from what I’ve heard.” In the 1920s and then during the Depression, he said, there were more and more street vendors selling food, and so Gus’ had to adapt in order to stay ahead of the game. “You couldn’t see the product in the bag, so you wanted it to pop out of the bag.” Thus, the pretzel stick was invented. “Whether that’s true, I don’t know,” Koebbe said with a laugh. “But it’s fun to say that St. Louis invented it.”

As pretzel lovers well know, pretzels also have a long history of being consumed alongside beer and sausages, and this is the perfect time of year to enjoy that combo. “I’ve really been into the local Oktoberfests lately. I really love this time of year when they come back,” Koebbe said, pointing out that he especially likes Main and Mill Brewing Co.’s Oktoberfestus, 4 Hands Brewing Co.’s Fest Bier and Schlafly Beer’s Oktoberfest with his pretzels. On that note, Gus’ bratwurst sandwich is another highly popular menu item. “G&W [Meat & Bavarian Style Sausage Co.] makes our brat – another great St. Louis company,” Koebbe said. “I try to only eat about one a week, but that’s hard. You know, you gotta do quality control.”