Give to get to give again. That’s the simple but powerful philosophy and biblical principle that is the driving force of Anne Beiler, the founder of Auntie Anne’s Soft Pretzels. Only God, in His infinite grace, mercy and love, could use a pretzel to turn a life of tragedy into one of the most successful franchises in the world.
The Amish Way Of Life
Anne’s dream as a child was never to get a business degree, an MBA and climb the corporate ladder. She grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, one of eight close-knit children in an Amish-Mennonite family. She learned the value of hard work and the rewards of a job well done. Faith had always been an integral part of her life and would prove to be her lifeline more than once. After passing eighth grade, as with most in the Amish culture, Anne’s schooling was over, and her life would involve helping out with the family farm and business.
At the age of sixteen, she met Jonas Beiler. He too grew up in the Amish culture, his being the Old Order Amish. He had a passion for working on cars and preferred them to the horse and buggies of his community. Anne and Jonas became friends and then later married in 1968 and settled down in a small, doublewide trailer near Anne’s family. She was nineteen and Jonas was twenty-one. Their first five years of marriage were filled with the hard work of starting their new lives and with the fun of being on their own. Their young family grew to include two daughters, LaWonna and Angie.
One sunny day in September of 1975, when LaWonna was four and Angie was nineteen months old, during the hustle and bustle of morning activity on a farm, Angie made her way out the kitchen door to run to her grandma’s house next door. Anne picked up the phone to call her mother to let her know that little Angie would be at her door any moment. Suddenly, Anne heard her father screaming, “Stop! Stop!” in a voice that sent chills down her spine. Angie had run behind a Bobcat tractor that was backing up and was killed instantly.
The tragic loss of Angie took a brutal toll on Anne and her family. For Anne, the loss was more than she could bear. She was unable to connect with Jonas emotionally to work through their grief so she sought the counsel of her local pastor. Unbeknownst to her, the pastor had ulterior motives and took advantage of her vulnerability. For the next six years, she was involved in an abusive relationship with the pastor, adding shame, guilt and self-loathing to the downward spiral of her emotional health. Years later she would learn that she was one of many of the pastor’s victims, including her sisters and daughter.
Through it all, Anne’s husband Jonas had remained with her. He felt a calling to counsel people with marital or relationship problems like those that they had lived through and wanted to offer those services free of charge. Anne wanted to find a way to support him and began working in a refreshment stand at a farmer’s market in Burtonsville, Maryland. It was a two and a half hour drive each way and she only worked on the weekends. Customer service and cleanliness were the keys to selling their main product: soft pretzels.
The Pretzel Reinvented
Almost immediately, Anne was offered the opportunity to manage the small stand. Although she had no management experience, she was curious and accepted the challenge. She quickly learned how to manage inventory, vendors, bookkeeping and employees. After three months of managing the stand, a friend told her of another stand that was for sale in a local farmer’s market, only thirty minutes from where she lived in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. They sold pizza, stromboli and soft pretzels. Stands in a busy farmer’s market could easily run $100,000 and up. Anne and Jonas didn’t even have a fraction of that kind of money but the idea kept running through her mind. Thinking that the asking price would be out of reach but wanting to satisfy her curiosity, she phoned the owners to discover that they wanted only $6,000! It was still more money than what they had but Jonas said that his father could loan them the money to buy the stand, and they bought it sight unseen.
Jonas and Anne’s brother cleaned up the run-down stand, and she quickly opened for business in February 1988. The whole family chipped in (including her daughters LaWonna, seventeen, and LaVale, only eleven years old at the time) to help run various aspects of the fledgling operation. Recalling her first stand, Anne said, “The food was edible but the pretzels were horrible! I couldn’t wait to stop selling them.” Not only was the taste unappealing, they looked as bad as they tasted. Anne was no stranger to baking and was determined to make a better pretzel. She tinkered with various techniques and came close, but it still lacked something. Jonas, who also grew up baking in an Amish kitchen, suggested a few ingredients that he recalled using in other recipes as a child. Anne was skeptical but agreed to try. Even as the first batch was baking, they could smell the difference. When they took them out of the oven, the signature light crisp on the outside and fluffy middle was exactly the look they had envisioned as being the perfect pretzel. From the first mouth watering bite they new they had unlocked the secret.
Better Than The Best
The first day that the new recipe was introduced, word spread like wildfire. People started buying them six and twelve at a time. Within a few days, there would be a steady line of twenty to thirty people waiting to get the new pretzels, buying them faster than Anne and her team could make them. People would walk away eating them exclaiming that they were “better than the best they had ever eaten.” Business was so good that she decided to stop selling everything else to focus solely on the pretzels and changed the name to Auntie Anne’s Pretzels (she had over thirty nieces and nephews and felt like everyone already called her Auntie Anne). Jonas designed the logo and painted her new sign.
Within a few months she was told of another stand that was available at a farmer’s market in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was in a run-down, inner city area and didn’t have nearly the traffic that the Downingtown location had. The rent was cheap enough that it was worth the risk. To her amazement, people were instantly hooked, and the new location thrived. It wasn’t long before inquiries started coming in from people wanting to open up their own Auntie Anne’s. By the end of 1988, Auntie Anne’s grossed more than $100,000. She said, “That was more money than I’d ever seen in my whole life!”
Growth initially spread to other farmer’s markets. There was little overhead and virtually no regulations to worry about. Each new location was managed by a family member, which gave Anne the comfort in knowing that things were going to be done to her standards. In the fall of 1989, a new twist was added to the business: the shopping mall.
Faced with regulations, code issues, fire prevention measures and logistical challenges, the first mall store was filled with obstacles, but, in working through the issues, established a template that would be replicated in malls around the world. Auntie Anne’s grew to a multi-million dollar franchise. More than 1,200 locations span the globe in shopping centers, airport terminals, train stations and college campuses.
Jonas’ dream of being able to provide free counseling services not only came to fruition, but they were able to build a 55,000 square foot family counseling and ministry center. Thousands of families have been helped as a result of the services provided. In the early growth stage of Auntie Anne’s, Anne struggled with her calling to serve the Lord, thinking that she needed to be a missionary or evangelist to fulfill God’s plan for her life. She sought His direction and while praying in church, she felt the Lord clearly instruct her that his plan for her at that time in her life was to make pretzels. From that moment on she dove headfirst into making Auntie Anne’s a success. She read as many books on leadership as she could and received the first of her two honorary doctorates even before earning her GED at the age of 50.
Anne says, “I think that business owners who are Christians often make the mistake of trying to keep their spiritual life separate from their business life. For us, our faith has always been a part of who we are. There is no separation. We always prayed with the team in the morning, prayed with employees who were going through trials, and as we grew we prayed in our corporate boardroom. Jesus has called us to be the salt and light of the earth.”
"We must live out our faith on a daily basis and not just tell people about it, but live it!"Anne Beiler
Anne was always careful about who she hired and to whom she offered franchises, feeling each person was significant to the whole organization. She developed a business matrix called the 3 P’s; Purpose, Product and People (in that order) equals Profit. She explained, “When God gives you a purpose and a great product, when you put the right people in place, you will see the profit that God will provide for His glory.”
Closing a Chapter
In 2005, after seventeen years of leading Auntie Anne’s, Anne sold the company to Sam Beiler, a distant cousin who had worked his way up through the ranks of the company to become president. She had searched worldwide for a successor to her company, but after fervent prayer and contemplation, there was only one man that she felt was perfect for the job – Sam. Sam continued to grow the business while maintaining the standards of excellence for which it is known and in 2010 sold it to the Atlanta company; FOCUS Brands.
Almost as suddenly as it grew, the business in which she poured her life and which bore her name would no longer be hers. God released her from the business, and she wanted to take time to spend with her husband, daughters and grandchildren. She said her bittersweet goodbyes to hundreds of franchise owners at a gala event. God had used this humble pretzel business to provide jobs for thousands of people and to provide millions of dollars for charity and missionary organizations. Through it all, she relied on God’s wisdom and guidance. “For me, there is one verse that I have clung to and has given me peace when faced with more dilemmas than I can count; that is Psalm 32:8, ‘I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you.’ It holds such meaning for me that I commissioned a friend of mine to paint a picture of Jesus standing in front of my desk. It hangs on the wall behind me as a constant reminder that He always knows the right path for me and will instruct me. For anyone seeking Biblical wisdom on how to run your business, there is nothing better than the Book of Proverbs.”
Anne’s story of overcoming tragedy and trials has landed her appearances on dozens of TV shows, including Good Morning America and The Oprah Winfrey Show, culminating in the honor of speaking at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Her schedule has remained full of speaking engagements at women’s conferences and Christian leadership events around the world. She also released a book of her life’s work and testimony called Twist of Faith.
Reflecting on how far she has come, Anne says, “Over all of the highs and lows that I’ve experienced, God has never ever let me down. There are three truths that I’ve come to realize: Life is hard, God is good, and don’t confuse the two.”