The pretzel chain’s namesake Anne Beiler dishes how she got Auntie Anne’s into practically every mall and airport in America
Don’t get it twisted, Oprah — Auntie Anne’s pretzels have been on everyone’s lips for three decades.
Anyone who’s ever been to an American shopping mall, airport or train station has likely been lured by the aroma of the buttery soft pretzels wrapped in the blue and white waxed paper. But “A Wrinkle in Time” director Ava DuVernay dished to E! recently that she gave the media mogul her first Auntie Anne’s pretzel on set last year.
“One day I came in and I was like, ‘This pretzel is so good,’” DuVernay said, offering Oprah a bit of her pretzel-wrapped hot dog. “She’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is incredible! What chef? What bakery?’ And I said, ‘It’s called Auntie Anne’s pretzels. It’s just in the mall or the airport.”
The original “Auntie” herself, Anne Beiler, who founded the company with her husband Jonas in 1988, told Moneyish that she’s just “so excited” that her pretzels are one of Oprah’s new favorite things.
“Wow, Oprah finally discovered Auntie Anne’s!” Beiler, 69, laughed. “The fact that she loved the product means the world to me. My passion was to have an exciting product for people to love and to enjoy, so to have Oprah make those comments was an honor.”
The Beilers began their business with a small farmer’s market stand in Lancaster, Pennsylvania 30 years ago March 3, when Anne was 40 and her daughters were 11 and 16. Beiler was raised in the nearby Amish community, and had grown up mastering the art of turning the perfect dough for doughnuts, cookies and breads. She and her husband spent two months perfecting the recipe for their own signature soft pretzels, which is a closely-guarded secret.
“The love of my life was to bake, and I always wanted to be better than the best, better than anything else out there,” she said.
What was supposed to be a side hustle to support Jonas’ dream of offering free counseling services became the quintessential franchise success story. They opened their first brick-and-mortar Auntie Anne’s store in nearby Middletown a year later, and within just three years had expanded to 100 franchised stores across the country. Today they boast about 2,000 locations in 48 states and 26 countries.
“We had no capital, and we had no business plan — I laugh about it all of the time,” she said. “We simply knew how to work hard; we knew our product was great … and we were in a community where we had lots of family and friends.”
They hired a consultant in 1990 to teach them how to franchise the business. A local chicken farmer invested $1.5 million to help fund their national rollout, and pretty soon they had a network of friends, family and loyal employees selling Auntie Anne’s across the country.
The Beilers set up shop wherever there was a lot of foot traffic, because they were confident their snacks were aromatic enough to tempt anyone passing by. That’s why Beiler pushed to get Auntie Anne’s into travel hubs and malls — even though shopping centers actually found her pretzel chain hard to swallow, at first. That would have been a big mistake considering Auntie Anne’s has grown to more than $500 million in annual sales, Beiler said.
“People said, ‘Impossible. Malls will never let you go in with a pretzel store. Who wants to buy pretzels when they’re shopping?’ But I could see Auntie Anne’s everywhere, because people love bread, and all we need is people walking by and smelling them, and they’ll stop and buy a pretzel,” said Bailer, who was named one of America’s 500 Women Entrepreneurs by Working Women, and Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. Magazine.
But she sold the company in 2005 (“for millions” was all she would say) so that she and her husband could return to their original dream of helping their community, and the franchise would continue to thrive. “We had birthed the baby, she grew to an 18-year-old, and then we kind of adopted her out,” said Beiler. “It was one of the hardest decisions that I’ve ever had to make. I cried for months, because I missed it. But I truly felt this was what we needed to do so that Auntie Anne’s could go to the next level.”
New president Heather Neary has continued running Auntie Anne’s in good stead, making it even more accessible with a “Pretzels to the People” catering program and partnering with OnDemand delivery vendors, as well as rolling out food trucks and concession trailers to bake fresh pretzels at on-site events.
But Beiler still has a few words of advice in light of Oprah’s surprise endorsement.
“I’m hoping somebody supplies her with Auntie Anne’s pretzels now on a daily basis,” she said, adding, “If Oprah would ever like to learn how to make a soft pretzel, I’m a great teacher. I may even give her the recipe!”
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