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Profile of an American Small Business Owner Success Story: Suzanne Foley, of Port City Pretzels in Portsmouth, N.H.

The staff at Port City Pretzels in Portsmouth, N.H.
Suzanne Foley and the staff at Port City Pretzels. Photo credit: Port City Pretzels.

Article and photos, unless otherwise noted, by Eric Hurwitz. Article created on 1/19/2023.

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These things are known to be true...

Those over 50-years-old who have lost their jobs can absolutely find new, meaningful career success. Just look at the late actress Betty White, who achieved stardom at 51 when portraying Sue Ann Nivens in The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1973.

Now is a better time than any other in history for women to successfully own small businesses. Just look at J.K. Rowling, founder of the Harry Potter empire who once lived in poverty.

There's still room to put a twist on a time-tested product and co-exist as a small business with big brand names selling the same goods. Wicked Whoopies in Gardiner, Maine did just that, going from owner Amy Bouchard's kitchen hobby to a national sensation when it comes to  whoopie pies.

Overwhelming tragedy can be followed by personal happiness in life. Just look at country star Luke Bryan, who lost two siblings before becoming a country music star.

Nice people can finish first.  Just look at humble rock/pop star Ed Sheeran reaching out to others with random acts of kindness too numerous to mention here.

Take all of the above and then look at Portsmouth, N.H. resident Suzanne Foley.

A career-long corporate business employee, Foley, 62, all of a sudden found herself unemployed in 2015. In a short amount of time she also suffered through many overwhelming personal traumas, losing her dad and seeing her sister tragically pass away on her father's funeral day. Foley also lost her dog during this time. Going through emotional distress while finding her work life relegated to attending mandatory unemployment meetings, Foley never lost faith, thank goodness.

After one unemployment meeting, Foley wrote a letter centering in on what she wanted to do in life. She then had that "Aha Moment" and decided to put that "twist" on a time-tested product by starting a pretzel business. The Foley family had loved snacking on pretzels through the generations, and this gave Foley food for thought. Suzanne's mother-in-law, the late Eileen Foley, the longest serving mayor in Portsmouth serving eight terms (her mother, Mary C. Dondero was the first women mayor in New Hampshire and first east of the Mississippi) possessed a beloved family pretzel recipe that Suzanne further researched, tweaked and eventually perfected through trial and error. After several months, Foley started Port City Pretzels -- now affectionately known as "The People's Pretzel" -- in Portsmouth in November of 2015. 

In a remarkably short amount of time, Foley's business went from a 500 sq. ft. facility to a 900 sq. ft. space to a 3,500 sq ft. to a 8,500 sq. ft. complex. Soon, the company's physical plant will expand significantly, going to 16,000 sq. ft. The facility is optimally compliant with Food and Drug Administration food business requirements.

It all represents a stunning small business success story and, for Suzanne, a "180" from the demoralizing nature of unemployment. The local SCORE chapter -- the nation's largest network of volunteer, expert business mentors -- has greatly helped Foley start up her new business, to this very day.  Foley soon found unexpected successes that almost read like something out of a storybook, or one of those improbable feel good movies of the year -- only this was real.

Suzanne Foley, owner of Port City Pretzels in Portsmouth, N.H.
Suzanne at the Port City Pretzels production plant.

"Someone must be watching from up above," said Foley. "I still can't believe all this is happening, but I love it. I am so grateful."

The first 10 businesses who all said "Yes" to selling Suzanne's pretzels has quickly grown to 2,000 stores (including select Walmart and Big Lots stores) in New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, New York and Washington, D.C. For a complete list of where to buy Port City Pretzels, click here.

Portsmouth, N.H.'s Port City Pretzels on display
Port City Pretzels on display. Photo credit: Port City Pretzels.

The pretzels -- Tangy Mustard & Honey, Tasty Ranch Dill, Cinnamon Sugar and Feisty Hot -- are addictive and delicious and clearly far beyond the norm in this food category with full-bodied accurate flavors, and an appealing, significant crunch. This writer brought back three bags (two regular size and one large size) for three people and the pretzels were gone within five days! They are, without a doubt, the best pretzels I have ever tasted.

Port City Pretzels recently took its four-flavor pretzel portfolio to the next level by transitioning to healthier products. The new recipe has omitted high fructose corn syrup, palm oil and artificial flavors. By taking out these questionable ingredients, there could have been a loss of flavors that Port City Pretzels customers have come to love but, fortunately, the taste remains intact. To this writer, the overall products actually taste better -- kudos to brilliant food scientists that were able to keep the pretzels more delicious than ever!

Cinnamon sugar pretzels from Port City Pretzels in Portsmouth, N.H.
Cinnamon sugar pretzels from Port City Pretzels. Photo credit: Port City Pretzels.

"Why do they taste so good?" asked Foley, already knowing the answer. "They are made with love, even as we get more automated. This is what I love doing."

Port City Pretzels and Suzanne have received great recognition along the way. In 2016, Port City Pretzels received a "best New Product" award by Made in New England. New Hampshire Magazine featured Port City Pretzels on its 2018 "Best of New Hampshire" list. In 2019, the Specialty Food Association highlighted Port City Pretzels' seasoned pretzels as a "Buyer's Pick." Also in 2019, Goldman Sachs' "10,000 Small Businesses" program selected Suzanne to participate in this esteemed initiative that focuses on offering practical entrepreneurial guidance and tools to position business for significant growth.

A sampling of recognition: Port City Pretzels in Portsmouth, N.H.
A sampling of Port City Pretzels recognition.

In 2020, the Women's Business Enterprise National Council/ Women Owned Small Business certified Port City Pretzels as a "100 percent women-owned business." Also, in 2020, Suzanne was named the New Hampshire's Small Business Association "Small Business Woman of the Year." Additionally, the Diversity Workforce Coalition designated Port City Pretzels with a Diversity Equity and Inclusion award. Port City Pretzels also received an Easter Seals NH David P. Goodwin Lifetime Achievement Award, Last but not least, the New Hampshire Vocational Rehabilitation Office granted Suzanne an Employment Leadership Award.

"Not a day goes by that I don't feel grateful," said Foley. "It is very hard for me to accept that this is all happening, but I feel great. I guess losing my (corporate job) was the best thing that ever happened.  You can feel very clouded in such a job.  Many people do not like their jobs, so I do feel blessed that I am doing what I love... You couldn't pay me enough to go back (to the corporate world)."

Foley employs three full-time employees and 25 part-time and intern staff within a loving, creative and diverse workplace setting. Additionally, as Suzanne's company has doubled every year in business and with recent addition of a second shift, the need for updated equipment has improved by producing four bags a minute to 30.

Port City Pretzels manufacturing facility in Portsmouth, N.H.
Port City Pretzels pretzels ready to go!

An inclusive, welcoming environment comprises a hard-working staff that seems to work together harmoniously as one big family.

"Our employees are a such an important part of everything we do here," said Suzanne.

Boxing the pretzels at Port City Pretzels in Portsmouth, N.H.
Boxing the pretzels.

Ultimately, having faith became the strongest ingredient in Suzanne and her company's success.

"Yes, I went through a lot, but never stopped believing," said Foley in her kind and authentic way. "You need to have faith." "We have come a long way since hand-scooping pretzels into a bag," said Foley, a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., native who has a bachelors degree from Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H. "I have gone from making something at home to a completely different world."

Foley also sticks to what she knows best when making the pretzels.

"I know gluten-free and salt-free are popular, but not right now for us," said Foley. We have a good product!"

With all the success, Foley remains grounded and able to handle different kind of pressures. She receives lots of support, especially from her two daughters, Brynn (who works for Barstool Sports) and Eileen (a mental health counselor).

"I am comfortable and have kept things in check," said Foley. "There's lots of support and I have brilliant people advising me. That helps a lot!"

Foley also takes on a very practical approach to business by always looking for a good bargain and keeping a good sense of humor.

"I need to buy a forklift and found one in Connecticut," said Foley, a few years ago. "It was on Craig's List. I buy a lot of things on Craig's List. But how do I bring that forklift back to Portsmouth? Yes, I guess there is stress, but it is not that bad!"

A growing dedicated fan base serves as a prime catalyst to Foley's successful business. She never forgets those precious moments of all that is good and most important in life. And while ongoing adjustments need to be made to address sufficient production space, financing, production equipment, supply and the right mix of employees, those temporary challenges always seem to work themselves out through vision, dedication and perseverance.

"I do get overwhelmed, at times, but in a good way," said Foley. "At a show, I saw six deep (rows) of people in line waiting to buy pretzels. I started to cry. I believe in the goodness of things, and I will never forget that."

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Port City Pretzels in Portsmouth, N.H., specializes in delicious, one-of-a-kind pretzels. There is also quite an inspirational story behind the business.

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Related article:
Fun in Freeport, Maine at Wicked Whoopies

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