Anne F. Beiler's life went into a tailspin after the death of her 19–month–old daughter, who was run over by a farm tractor in 1975. Anne, in her mid–20s at the time, found herself depressed and eventually on the brink of suicide. Despite being a faithful churchgoer, she didn't feel she could share her pain with friends or family members.
Anne and her husband Jonas, whom she wed at 19, drifted apart. The couple didn't talk about the tragedy and its ramifications. Instead, they remained silent partners who simply lived together. Anne opted to stay with her husband for the sake of their other two surviving daughters. But she contemplated divorcing once LaWonna and LaVale had grown up.
Seven years into the ordeal, Jonas convinced his wife to go with him for marriage counseling at their church. "I really didn't want to go, even though my life was falling apart," Anne says. "But I had a breakthrough, and God started dealing with me."
The Beilers reconciled as God restored their marriage. God also revealed to the couple that many Christians around them also suffered with a great deal of silent despair. After studying at Dr. Richard Dobbins's EMERGE Ministries in Akron, Ohio, the Beilers began providing lay counseling as a way to help such broken people.
In order to make ends meet in those early years, Anne recollected her youthful baking days growing up on an Amish–Mennonite farm with seven siblings. Because Anne had asthma she didn't venture outside much, and thus became the cook and baker for the family. By age 12, Anne made up to 70 pies and cakes from scratch each week for sale at a nearby farmer's market. She didn't skimp on ingredients, and always carefully made sure the wares looked and tasted great.
"God often uses our history to fulfill His plan," Anne says. "God was preparing me for the future."
After reconciling with her husband, Anne bought a concession stand at a busy farmers' market in Downington, Pennsylvania, as a way to financially supplement the counseling business. She sold everything from pizza to ice cream, but it was the hand–rolled soft pretzels that customers gobbled up the fastest. Because of the demand, Anne dropped the rest of the products and concentrated on pretzels full time.
From that modest start, she has become one of the nation's leading entrepreneurs. Her counseling center in Gap, Pennsylvania, has grown tremendously and now employs 17 people, providing more than 2,300 appointments annually. But it's her side business that has a much higher profile. Auntie Anne's Hand–Rolled Soft Pretzels raked in $236 million in sales in 2003.
In 15 years, the company has grown from a single outlet in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to more than 800 worldwide, with a workforce of more than 10,000. Auntie Anne's, with headquarters in Gap, Pennsylvania, has found a niche among snack–seeking mall shoppers. The company doesn't advertise, but pretty much everyone has seen—or smelled—those tasty pretzels.
The business also has franchisees in 13 countries overseas, all because wealthy business people have sought Auntie Anne's out. Today, the American pretzel company is found in such unlikely nations as Indonesia, Thailand, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia.
"The pretzel is a bread with a universal language," Anne says. "The reaction is the same around the world."
The Auntie Anne's menu offers more than pretzels. There's a wide range of dipping sauces (including strawberry cream cheese, marinara, caramel, and sweet mustard), gourmet coffees, and frozen beverages. But it's the variety of soft pretzels—which are mixed, twisted, and baked in full view of customers—that make the franchise such a success.
"My history is one of depending on God," she says. "I know who my source is. The business is much bigger than I am."
Anne, who is chief executive officer of Auntie Anne's, says the business is based on the Book of Proverbs. The acronym LIGHT forms its statement of purpose: Lead by example; Invest in employees; Give freely; Honor God; and Treat all business contacts with integrity. She believes God wants Christian men and women to open their own businesses and to find a higher purpose, as she and her husband did. Nowadays, Jonas serves as executive director of the Beilers' nonprofit Family Resource and Counseling Center, established in 1992.
"Without the love of my husband and God, I wouldn't be here today," Anne says.
In 1999, Auntie Anne's started a foundation providing funds to organizations that care for children and families in need. The Angela Foundation, named after the Beilers' deceased daughter, gives money to charities and missionary groups. Ignoring early advice from bankers that they were giving too much money away, the Beilers have consistently donated more than a tenth of their corporate income to ministry causes.
Editor's Note: For more information about Auntie Anne's Pretzels, visit www.auntieannes.com.
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