Putting it on the line

Dan DiZ­io is a found­ing part­ner of the Philly Pret­zel Fact­ory. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

— Philly Pret­zel Fact­ory CEO will get a closer look at the twists and turns of his busi­ness when he’s on TV’s ‘Un­der­cov­er Boss’


One of Dan DiZ­io’s fa­vor­ite tele­vi­sion pro­grams is the CBS real­ity series Un­der­cov­er Boss.

DiZ­io can re­late a little, as he is the CEO and found­ing part­ner of the Philly Pret­zel Fact­ory.

“I’ve al­ways loved the show and thought maybe one day, if the com­pany got big, we could pos­sibly be on it,” he said.

The pret­zel fact­ory uses a pub­lic re­la­tions firm that has had cli­ents ap­pear on the show, which airs Fri­days at 8 p.m. Re­peat epis­odes are broad­cast on TLC.

Since de­b­ut­ing on Feb. 7, 2010, fol­low­ing Su­per Bowl XLIV, Un­der­cov­er Boss has pro­filed some of the na­tion’s most prom­in­ent com­pan­ies. The list in­cludes Waste Man­age­ment, NAS­CAR, Yan­kee Candle, Ori­ent­al Trad­ing, Choice Ho­tels, 7-El­ev­en, Check­ers and Hoot­ers.

And, as of April 27, you can add the Philly Pret­zel Fact­ory to the list.

“We’re pretty lucky to be in a spot to be picked,” DiZ­io said. “We’re small in the scope of the show. Ninety-nine per­cent of the pub­lic doesn’t know who Philly Pret­zel Fact­ory is.”

The Philly Pret­zel Fact­ory sure isn’t small on the East Coast. There are about 130 loc­a­tions in eight states.

In the North­east area, there are six sites: 1903 Cottman Ave., 1687 Grant Ave., 12363 Academy Road, 5200 Frank­ford Ave., 3377 Ara­mingo Ave. and the ori­gin­al store at 7366 Frank­ford Ave. in May­fair.

The show in­ter­viewed DiZ­io last sum­mer, and he was told in Oc­to­ber that the com­pany had been chosen.

“I gave it a day’s thought. There are no guar­an­tees that they won’t make you look bad. There’s a level of risk to be on the show. But there was too much up­side,” he said in ex­plain­ing why he agreed to ap­pear on the show.

Tap­ing for the show took place from late Novem­ber to Dec. 10.

For any­one un­fa­mil­i­ar with the show, the boss goes un­der­cov­er in his com­pany and typ­ic­ally gets em­bar­rassed in some way. His ap­pear­ance is altered, and he’s giv­en an ali­as and a fic­tion­al back story. Em­ploy­ees are giv­en an ex­plan­a­tion for the pres­ence of cam­er­as. At the end, the CEO’s iden­tity is re­vealed.

DiZ­io, 40, who is nor­mally clean-shaven, grew a beard at the dir­ec­tion of the show. The crew shaved the beard to a goat­ee, dyed his dark hair blond and cut it short. He put blue con­tact lenses onto his brown eyes. He also wore a vi­sor, like em­ploy­ees do.

“They were try­ing to get me to look more youth­ful,” he said.

DiZ­io had his doubts about wheth­er he’d go un­re­cog­nized.

“We have al­most a hun­dred and thirty loc­a­tions, and I thought there was no way they could dis­guise me,” he said. “But it worked. It fools them.”

DiZ­io has to keep the de­tails of his ap­pear­ance secret un­til the epis­ode is aired. He can­not say which loc­a­tions were used for tap­ing or wheth­er any em­ploy­ees cri­ti­cized man­age­ment. He also can’t re­veal any­thing about re­wards giv­en to staff, a staple of the show.

What he can say is that he worked all as­pects of the busi­ness, in­clud­ing op­er­at­ing a cash re­gister that is a lot more com­plex than the one he used when he opened his first store in 1998.

“I was twist­ing pret­zels, bak­ing pret­zels, clean­ing, mak­ing de­liv­er­ies, pretty much everything that goes on in the daily op­er­a­tion,” he said.

At first, DiZ­io thought he might be get­ting tricked, that some­body had fooled him in­to think­ing that he was really be­ing fea­tured on a prom­in­ent net­work tele­vi­sion pro­gram.

By the end, he learned a lot.

“I sort of for­got how hard the work is,” he said. “It was a hum­bling ex­per­i­ence. It opened my eyes to what the fran­chisees and em­ploy­ees go through on a daily basis. It’s a long, long day. It’s easy to make de­cisions in a board­room, but they have a mean­ing­ful im­pact.”

DiZ­io said the ex­per­i­ence was at times fun, nerve-rack­ing and ex­haust­ing, but most of all a once-in-a-life­time op­por­tun­ity.

“Nev­er in a mil­lion years did I think there would be an hour­long na­tion­al TV show about me and my part­ner (col­lege buddy Len Leh­man). At cer­tain mo­ments dur­ing film­ing, it was sur­real for me,” he said.

DiZ­io got his start in the busi­ness as an 11-year-old selling pret­zels along Roosevelt Boulevard at vari­ous in­ter­sec­tions from Har­bison Av­en­ue north. Back then, the pret­zels were five for a dol­lar. He spent about a dec­ade hawk­ing one of Phil­adelphi­ans’ fa­vor­ite snacks.

Today, thanks to a fam­ous and eye-open­ing 1993 news story by Chan­nel 10’s Herb Den­en­berg about un­san­it­ary hand­ling of pret­zels by street vendors, the product is now sold al­most ex­clus­ively at stores.

When DiZ­io opened his first store on May 2, 1998, people were happy that they could buy pret­zels at a clean shop and see them be­ing made. As a bo­nus, the pret­zels were still warm after be­ing taken out of the oven.

The first fran­chise store opened in 2004.

Today, Pret­zel Fact­ory stores sell more than 100 mil­lion items per year. The lines will be long on April 26, Na­tion­al Pret­zel Day, when all cus­tom­ers re­ceive a free pret­zel. The first 100 cus­tom­ers will re­ceive a free pret­zel every day in May.

On May 19, the Pret­zel Fact­ory will cel­eb­rate its 14th an­niversary and con­trib­ute to the fest­ive at­mo­sphere of the May­fair May Fair by hold­ing a block party at the store at Frank­ford and Bleigh av­en­ues as a thank you to the com­munity for its sup­port. There will be a disc jockey, face-paint­er, free wa­ter ice, games, Moon­bounce, pony rides and a pret­zel dog-eat­ing con­test.

Once the epis­ode airs, DiZ­io ex­pects to re­ceive a big in­crease in tele­phone calls, Web site vis­its and e-mails from po­ten­tial fran­chise op­er­at­ors and more cus­tom­er traffic in ex­ist­ing stores.

“We’re al­ways try­ing to gain new cus­tom­ers,” he said.

Un­der­cov­er Boss wins its time slot and pulls in pretty good rat­ings for a Fri­day night.

Busi­nesses that ap­pear on Un­der­cov­er Boss are not com­pensated, nor do they pay CBS for the right to ap­pear on air. Any re­wards to em­ploy­ees come out of the com­pany own­er’s pock­ets.

DiZ­io is look­ing for­ward to the show’s air­ing. He doesn’t get a pre­view.

“The day every­one else sees it, I see it,” he said.

In mid-March, he went on a busi­ness trip to Utah and spoke to a half-dozen CEOs whose com­pan­ies were pro­filed on the show.

“As a whole, they all came away that it was a pos­it­ive,” he said.

DiZ­io will in­vite fam­ily and friends to his house to watch the show.

“I’d rather them laugh with me, not at me,” he said. ••

You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

comments powered by Disqus