Ben’s Soft Pretzels to open in Benton Harbor

Ben’s Soft Pretzels will open in September at 136 Territorial Road in Benton Harbor and serve gourmet soft pretzels with a variety of specialty dipping sauces, as well as pretzel pizzas, pretzel hot dogs and more. The owners plan to add a Hershey’s ice cream bar in the spring.

Julie Weckel first tasted Ben’s Soft Pretzels about five years ago, and it didn’t take long for her to decide that she wanted to have them closer to home.

“I can’t explain how fantastic these pretzels are,” Weckel said. “I’m a person who’s very brand loyal, so when my daughter convinced me to try one at the University Park Mall in Mishawaka, I was skeptical. Now I can’t eat anything else.”

Weckel quickly considered opening a franchise in the Benton Harbor area, but the timing didn’t seem right. Then when her mother, Judy, died during the Covid-19 pandemic, Weckel began to see things differently.

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“You contemplate what’s important when dealing with life and death, and after my mom died, it became more about living life to the fullest, and less about why we can’t open a franchise,” Weckel said.

Weckel used a portion of her mother’s estate to invest in the new business, which felt like a dream she shared with her mother coming full circle.

Weckel grew up in Detroit in the early 1970s, when more than 100,000 Detroit residents fled the city in the years following the 1967 Detroit riot. Weckel’s family wanted to invest in the city. Her parents, Judy and Rod, bought a house in Detroit, hoping to help reverse white flight and contribute to the city’s revitalization in some small way.

Years later, when Weckel’s husband and business partner, Pat, found the vacant business space at the first address on Territorial Road, Weckel saw an opportunity to invest in a different community, on the other side of the state, but one connected to her Detroit upbringing by that same road. 

Territorial Road begins in Benton Harbor, with the building the Weckels will be leasing at the first address, and ends in Detroit. The building space was occupied by Piggin’-N-Grinnin’ for 13 years until November 2020, when the barbecue restaurant moved to 2114 S. Cleveland Avenue in St. Joseph.

“The Benton Harbor Arts District is full of wonderful people and fantastic things, and we’re excited we get to be a part of this community, just like my parents wanted to be a part of the community in Detroit,” Weckel said.

Weckel hopes to connect with local schools and outreach programs to provide internships and entrepreneurial education for students interested in running their own business.

“We want to become partners with the community, so if there’s people out there who have ideas, we’d love to have conversations about what can be developed,” Weckel said. “I think it’s very important that we make opportunities available to people.”

“As a social worker, I think it’s really important for people to make a living wage, that they work in a safe, positive environment, and that they’re happy in their jobs. We want to create opportunities for people to grow personally and professionally, and we feel strongly about helping people find paths that they might not know are available.”

Weckel also founded Geriatric Connections, a counseling service that provides support to the elderly, which she opened in 2008. She will continue operating that business by moving some responsibilities to other staff and hiring additional employees.

The Ben’s Soft Pretzel franchise was born in the mid-2000s at the South Bend Farmer’s Market, where Amish Homesteaders Ben and Liz Miller sold baked goods. The Millers were approached to purchase a pretzel company, which operated the adjoining booth. After the Millers agreed to purchase, they realized they had only purchased the pretzel-making equipment — not the recipe or the brand — and developed their own Amish-inspired recipe, using German-sourced ingredients.

Ben’s Soft Pretzels opened its first brick-and-mortar store in 2008, and the franchise currently operates more than 100 locations, concentrated in northern Indiana, southern Michigan, and Illinois. 

The company maintains master lease agreements with Wal-Mart and Meijer, allowing it to open bakeries in any Wal-Mart or Meijer location with open space in the US.