All Over The Map: The mysterious origins of the Seattle ‘Snitter’

Apr 1, 2022, 8:26 AM | Updated: Oct 25, 2022, 4:21 pm

The "Snitter" is a pastry with mysterious origins that may be unique to Seattle and a shop on Lower Queen Anne Hill. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Nielsen's first opened in downtown Seattle in 1965; the shop moved to Lower Queen Anne in the 1990s to make way for Benaroya Hall. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Nielsen's is located on Second Avenue West, just south of Mercer Street. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

A Danish pastry shop in Seattle may be the only place in the world where you can buy a “Snitter.”

And what, exactly, is a “Snitter”? According to an employee at John Nielsen’s Authentic Danish Pastries on Lower Queen Anne Hill in Seattle named Liza, it’s similar to a cinnamon roll. But a Snitter is different, too.

“A Snitter is a flattened cinnamon roll with a line of custard in it,” Liza told KIRO Newsradio on Thursday. “So it’s dense, but you still get kind of the crispy edges which are nice in a cinnamon roll.”

“But, I don’t know, it’s a little different, and a little more decadent,” she added.

According to Holly Prairie, who owns Nielsen’s with her husband, the shop’s founder John Nielsen has always been a little vague when it comes to the true origins of the distinctive pastry.

“The Snitter remains a great mystery that John never revealed to any of us — other than the recipe of course — but that’s what makes it fun isn’t it?” Prairie wrote in an email. “He says he didn’t invent it, but it’s hard to find anything like it anywhere else.”

Clues may be found in the name, Prairie writes.

“The word ‘snitter’ in Danish just means ‘slice,’ and it used to be that in Denmark, you would point at a long portion of pastry and say where you wanted it cut, thus making that piece your snitter,” she described.

Sure enough, close examination of a Nielsen’s Snitter reveals that along with a thick bead of custard, each individual serving appears to have been cut from a longer piece.

John Nielsen opened his pastry shop in downtown Seattle in 1965. Many longtime Seattleites may remember visiting when the business operated at Third and Union where Benaroya Hall now stands. Some may even remember how the coffee was served there in “Solo Cozy Cups” – those distinctive, mid-century reusable primary-colored plastic cup holders designed to hold disposable cone-like plastic liners.

When Benaroya Hall was built in those pre-social media days of the mid 1990s, it appeared to some downtown habitués that Nielsen’s had simply shut down or otherwise disappeared. However, lucky devotees discovered that the shop had moved to Lower Queen Anne, just off Mercer on 2nd Avenue West, a few blocks west of Seattle Center.

Founder John Nielsen is originally from Copenhagen. Current owner Holly Prairie says he came to Seattle in the early 1960s. Nielsen retired in 1999 and was hard to track down for an interview. Prairie says that the shop has changed hands twice, but has remained within the shop’s extended “family”; Nielsen first sold it to his apprentice Darcy Person in 1999, and Prairie purchased it from Person in 2017.

Prairie wrote that she’s “a lifelong Seattleite and [she] worked at the bakery while attending Seattle Pacific [University].”

“As Seattle began rapidly changing, I couldn’t bear the thought of another treasured historical business biting the dust,” she continued. “So I decided to purchase it, and my husband joined me in the venture.”

“Through COVID  and all, we have been proud and delighted to share sweet treats and traditions with both old and new Seattleites alike,” Prairie wrote.

Iconic and distinctive local businesses, particularly ones that are locally owned and food-related – such as Ivar’s, Spud Fish & Chips, Dick’s Drive-In, Johnny’s Seasoning Salt, Mountain Bars, Almond Roca (both from Brown & Haley) – can be one of the most powerful means for communities and regions to retain their identities.

The Snitter – however it was invented or wherever it really came from, or, maybe because of its mysterious backstory – deserves to be right there alongside those other Northwest delicacies.

Whether you wash it down with coffee from a Solo Cozy Cup is entirely up to you.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: The mysterious origins of the Seattle ‘Snitter’