If you don't believe anyone would start a business just to help others, then you haven't heard how Anne Beiler, 47, turned a farmer's market job into a thriving pretzel franchise.
Auntie Anne's Inc. (so named for the moniker Beiler's 30 nieces and nephews know her by) reached $81 million in sales in 1995 and projects sales of $100 million this year. Since its launch in 1988, the company has grown to include 17 company-owned stores and 312 franchises. What's most amazing about this explosive growth is that the company doesn't actively pursue franchising-yet still receives 20 to 30 calls a day from franchise prospects.
"It's the product," says Beiler of the reasons behind the incredible response. "How can a pretzel be that good? I don't know. I believe we were put here to make an impact in the business world. People are drawn to a company that is not totally selfish. The invisible part of Auntie Anne's is what attracts people to us."
That "invisible part" is drawn largely from the Amish-Mennonite faith Beiler was raised in. Even though she left the religion at age 19, Beiler says those values still play an important role in her business. "It's who I am," she explains. "It's hard to separate yourself from what you grew up with."
It was the desire to help others of that faith that launched Beiler on the winding road to Auntie Anne's. In 1987, she and her husband, Jonas, started a free family counseling service in their Lancaster, Pennsylvania, home, catering to local Amish and Mennonite families. To make ends meet and still offer the counseling for free, she took a job managing a booth that sold pizza and pretzels at a nearby farmer's market.
Displaying an instant knack for business, Beiler helped boost the booth's success by eliminating pizza from the menu and concentrating on selling a soft pretzel that was hand-rolled in front of customers. When she received a call that year informing her of a booth for sale at another farmer's market, she paused only long enough to ask her husband what he thought.
"This feels right," she told him, and their decision was made in five minutes. They borrowed the $6,000 for the booth from Jonas' father and bought the space sight unseen.
Beiler spent three months fine-tuning her pretzel recipe before the next happy accident occurred: A supplier inadvertently delivered the wrong ingredients. Beiler experimented with them, added some of her own, and discovered the new twist had given her a recipe for success. "The whole thing is pretty divine," she says.
And no one would dispute that Auntie Anne's was founded at a most opportune moment. At that time, says Beiler, no one knew anything about soft pretzels. "We introduced the concept," she claims. In the last few years, however, pretzels have been tempting customers around the country: Nationwide pretzel sales increased 15.4 percent from 1993 to 1994, to $1.27 billion.
Today, the business is all in the family: Jonas is the company's vice president, and even the Beiler children, LaWonna, 24, and LaVale, 19, have jumped on the bandwagon. They bought their own Auntie Anne's store in Austin, Texas, last year.
The Beilers haven't forgotten their original goal, either: Jonas is now director of the Family Information Center, a free counseling service wholly funded by Auntie Anne's. It's all part of doing business the Auntie Anne's way.
"My mother taught me to be kind and turn the other cheek," says Beiler. "In business, it isn't always practical, but I always try to go the second mile."