Twists and Turns
Anne Beiler, founder of the Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel franchise, shares her story
by Sharon A. Shaw

Philadelphians are passionate about their pretzels, consuming an estimated 12 times as many of the starchy snacks as the annual national average. Although it seems there is a vendor hawking soft pretzels on every corner in South Philly, it took the devotion of a soft-spoken woman, seeking a way to support her family and community, to introduce the pretzel stand to the world.

Anne Beiler and her husband, Jonas, were raised in an Amish community in Lancaster County but chose not to adhere to its strict cultural practices. After a series of challenges threatened their union, they sought help from a marriage counselor—a decision that not only saved their relationship but also inspired Jonas to become a certified counselor, with the goal of providing services to those in need, free of charge. Beiler decided to go to work to lend her support. “I was a stay-at-home mom, but I was more than happy to support him,” she says. “He was the man who saved my life our marriage and our family.” She opened the first Auntie Anne’s pretzel stand in the Downingtown Farmers Market in 1988 and quickly became CEO of the world’s largest hand-rolled soft pretzel franchise.  

Beiler’s formal schooling ended after the eighth grade. She faced many challenges as an entrepreneur, but her education—or lack thereof—was never one of them. “My father said you can get anything you set your mind to,” she says. She built Auntie Anne’s on the strength of her people skills, her work ethic and her relationships with friends, family and co-workers. “After only a few stores opened, I realized I cannot be in more than one place at one time,” she says. She overcame her apprehension to delegate, and began assigning some responsibility to others. “I never cared about the numbers; I know it sounds irresponsible, but that was not what mattered most,” she says.

What did matter was the ability to help others. “It became a driving force,” she says. Growing up as a middle sibling in a religious family of eight children, she often heard the phrase “put others first, yourself last,” and she took these words to heart. The Beilers gave 10 percent of Auntie Anne’s profits to the church or people in need.

Beiler was fortunate, over the 17 years she operated Auntie Anne’s, to have had many mentors. Perhaps the most important influence in her life has been Jesus Christ. “In business, I realized Proverbs is the [wisest] counsel,” she says. “When I didn’t know what to do, I would read stories [from the Bible]. It wasn’t part of the corporate world, but it put me in touch with people, helped me understand how to behave as a person of integrity, to make a difference and to love people.” Jonas helped her in this respect, as well. “He is one of the most steady, kind, forgiving and [wise persons] that I have ever met,” she says. “I wish every woman in the world could have a man like him.”

Breaking the corporate mold yet again, Beiler also did not concern herself with competitors, saying she was surprised to learn that Philadelphia soft pretzels were considered rivals. “I grew up on a farm and learned that when you plow the field you look straight ahead,” she says. Auntie Anne’s responded to the comparison by simply offering samples to let the product speak for itself. “That became the tool I used. The rest of the world didn’t know there were two kinds of pretzel; it was only on the East Coast that we had to differentiate ourselves. Once people tried it they understood the difference.”

When she sold Auntie Anne’s in 2005, the business had 875 franchise locations in 44 states and 13 countries; today is has close to 1,400. The Beilers used proceeds from the sale to build The Family Center of Gap, a 55,000-square-foot community center in Lancaster County, housing organizations that assist families and individuals in need—mentally, physically and spiritually. She calls the opening of the center the “greatest joy” of her life. “My experiences helped me realize that I am here for a specific purpose that only I can fill,” she says. “We all are. … It is worth every step I took and every obstacle I had to overcome.”

Beiler is now sharing her story at events throughout the country—including a recent engagement at Ursinus College as part of its “U-Inspire!” Speaker Series—encouraging others to share their stories and, perhaps more importantly, to be take charge of their own lives and make positive changes. She has also published a book about her experiences, titled “Twist of Fate.” She was sometimes reluctant to look back on the most challenging events in her life and put pen to paper. Although it was sometimes painful, it was also “one of the healthiest things” she has ever done for herself.

“I lost many nights of sleep asking myself, ‘Do they want to know? Need to know? Does it matter?’” she says. “I wanted to be truthful.” Writing the book made her feel more whole, even though she doesn’t like that word, “because we are never there completely there.”