When Celina Zentner wanted to learn to make soft pretzels just like the Amish do, the 21-year-old didn't look up a recipe online or play around in the kitchen until she came close enough.
She went undercover.
In December, Zentner took an apprenticeship at the Soft Pretzel Corner in the PA Dutch Farmers Market of Wyomissing. Every Thursday, she would don traditional Amish garb and work without pay until she mastered the trade.
It was all in preparation to open Salty Gal, a new pretzel stand at the Leesport Farmers Market that launched the first week of May.
And to help ensure Salty Gal starts off on the right foot, Zentner's Amish friends are now pitching in over at her business, including Soft Pretzel Corner owner Katie May King.
"I just thought she had the best presentation," Zentner said of May's pretzels. "They're a lot fluffier."
Zentner reminisced about stopping by the Soft Pretzel Corner often when she attended classes at Reading Area Community College. She didn't know King personally, but was able to arrange an introduction through a family connection to the market.
Growing up in the Kutztown area, Zentner had plenty of exposure to Mennonite culture, which, while not the same, made it easier to embed herself with the Amish.
"I kind of knew the dress code," Zentner said, referring to the plain, hand-sewn dresses worn by women. "She (King) made me the apron. Pretty much the only thing missing was the bonnet."
Coming of age at the farmers market
While authentic Amish pretzels are quite a change for Zentner, entrepreneurship, and farmers markets in particular, are in her DNA.
Zentner worked at her parents' stand at the Leesport Farmers Market as a kid and started selling her own lemonade at age 10. Her parents would later step away from the business, but at 16 and still a sophomore at Lighthouse Christian Academy in Lyons, she reacquired it and renamed it Celina's Eggacy.
Her parents once again operate Celina's Eggacy, but Zentner now runs Tradiciones, a Mexican food stand at the Fairgrounds Farmers Market in Muhlenberg.
"My family eats, sleeps, breathes, lives the farmers market," Zentner said. "That's where we started. You form relationships between vendors. If I run out of something, I can go to the deli and they'll give me wholesale pricing. All of our produce is through people in the market."
It's been a difficult year for merchants like herself, Zentner acknowledged, particularly at fully-indoor venues such as Fairgrounds that carefully adhered to COVID guidelines.
When she wasn't at her apprenticeship, or running Tradiciones, or making and selling candles on the side, Zentner was working full-time as a certified nursing assistant, saving up to turn Salty Gal into a reality.
"Every weekend for five months in a row, every time I got a paycheck, I went and bought some type of equipment," Zentner said, estimating she was working about 80 hours a week until recently.
"Everyone thought I was crazy," she added. "In the middle of pandemic, why on earth? The pandemic has to come to end eventually, though. Things have to go back to normal."
Salty Gal is more than just pretzels
Judging from the steady stream of customers at the Salty Gal stand one Wednesday afternoon, things are getting there.
In addition to fresh, hand-twisted soft pretzels, Salty Gal also offers cinnamon sticks, pigs in a blanket and an array of stuffed pretzels. Well before the end of the day's lunch rush, the new pulled pork stuffed pretzels were already sold out.
Salty Gal just put soft-serve ice cream on the menu as well, and the plan is to continue growing the selection of treats available.
"I like going to Rehoboth Beach," Zentner said. "I go down just for the snacks sometimes: cotton candy, ice cream, fudge.
"My goal is, everything you can get at the boardwalk, you can get at Salty Gal."
Zentner already has her eyes on a potential second Salty Gal location as her parents are currently going through the municipal approval process to build a farmers market-style store at their Greenwich Township home.
She already has plenty on her plate as it is, prompting her to finally quit her job as a CNA to focus on markets and other craft show appearances where she sells her candles and anything else that captures her interest.
"I really like making things," Zentner said. "And I'm just tired of working for the man. I need to be my own boss."