Auntie Anne's Success and Private Tragedy

The founder of Auntie Anne's Pretzels, Anne Beiler, offers a candid and heartbreaking memoir of breakout commercial success and personal tragedy in "Twist of Faith."

Beiler weaves together the story of her company's growth from a farm market to a multinational corporation, with flashbacks of her private life in Texas as she struggled through adultery and the death of one of her children.

Her unwavering faith and perseverance throughout it all make for a truly inspiring read.

You can read an excerpt from Chapter One below:

My Angie

I walked a mile with Pleasure / She chatted all the way
But left me none the wiser / For all she had to say
I walked a mile with Sorrow / And ne'er a word said she
But, oh, the things I learned from her / When Sorrow walked with me!

—Robert Browning Hamilton

And just like that, the journey ended. I had covered so much ground during those years, walked so many miles. I went through the darkness, at times unsure if I would make it. I also walked the mountaintops and accomplished more than I ever dreamed possible. Do journeys always seem to end so abruptly? This one did. One moment I was caught up in running a business, and the next moment suddenly we were walking away from it: after seventeen years and building over eight hundred locations, we decided to sell Auntie Anne's Soft Pretzels.

One moment represented the climax of that journey's end: my husband, Jonas, and I sat alone on a stage at the annual Auntie Anne's convention, in front of nearly one thousand franchisees, corporate employees, and family members. I felt as though nearly everyone fit into the last category: family. In many ways those franchisees and employees served as family through the years. We spent holidays with them, attended their weddings and their funerals, and sent congratulations on the arrival of children and grandchildren.

I desperately clung to Jonas's hand. He began his adult life as a mechanic by trade, something that fit into his true calling: fixing things. Initially this worked itself out in his life when he owned a body shop, beating old cars into shape. Eventually he channeled his efforts into counseling, tuning the engines of broken lives, making them purr again. I think when most people meet him, they see his serious side, his compassion. What many people don't see is that really he's just a little boy, downright silly at times. Sitting beside me on the stage, he made me feel strong and capable.

Some of my oldest and dearest friends talked about when they first started with Auntie Anne's. Their stories about broken-down delivery vans and grand opening day disasters put all of us in hysterics. But they also told stories that made me cry, stories about the changing of fortunes, how Auntie Anne's altered their lives for good, forever.

Two of our first franchisees in the South told their story of wanting to open a location in spite of our hesitancies. "You're too far away," we told them. "We're not ready to incorporate a store that far away into our infant distribution system."

Back in the early '90s, we struggled to keep up with the business, growing mostly in Pennsylvania, and we couldn't imagine expanding so many hundreds of miles away. We eventually resigned ourselves to their pleas, agreeing to meet them half-way between their hometown and the interstate with their delivery once a month. These days franchisees receive deliveries on their doorstep, once or even twice a week. But back then we sometimes had to do things the hard way if we wanted to grow.

As other franchisees spoke kind words, my eyes fought the glare of the spotlights to search the crowd. Stories flashed through my mind as I scanned those faces. Hundreds of success stories, rags-to-riches tales that warmed my heart. Some faces brought to mind difficult times, conflict, and disagreement, but that went with the territory. There's nothing like the combination of money, passion for a product, and competition to stir up disagreement. Then, through the searching beam, I saw Charlie Johnson.

I remember one of my first trips to California to meet Charlie, a new franchisee. He drove me around in his sports car, gave me a tour of his stores in San Francisco. He seemed so full of peace and compassion, a family man. I attended church with Charlie over Mother's Day weekend and got to know him, heard his story. I soon discovered where the connection I felt came from—he'd experienced the tragedy of losing someone close to him, just like I had.

When I told him the story about my daughter Angela, tears welled up in his eyes.

"I'm so sorry you lost your daughter," he said that day,

Mother's Day. He repeated the statement many times after that: "I'm so sorry you lost your Angela." Charlie somehow understood I never stopped thinking about her. Even before I got up on stage the final day of our convention, he approached me, said how happy he was for me, but the last thing he said echoed in my spirit:

"I really think your success is somehow connected with Angie being in heaven. I think she's pulling some strings for you up there."

"I think you're right, Charlie. I think Angie played a huge part in all this. I've always thought . . ." But I couldn't continue. Just the thought of her, of Angie, well, I stood there shaking my head, unable to press words past the rising emotion.

A warm autumn day in September 1975, and I walked barefoot in the grass along the stone drive. My daughter LaWonna ran ahead of me, her thin four-year-old legs spinning toward my sister-in-law's house. LaWonna's brown hair danced. Nineteen-month-old Angie tried to keep up, her chubby bare feet and uncertain steps sending up dust. Shirl and her four children lived only a hundred yards or so down the lane, and LaWonna loved playing there with her cousins. As LaWonna dashed up to the door and knocked, Angie stopped halfway between us and looked back at me. Her little blue eyes, impatient, seemed to say, "Are you coming, Mama?" She smiled, then turned and ran.

We spent a lot of time with Shirl and her children, but on that particular morning something weighed heavily on my mind, something I hoped Shirl would understand. We sat at her kitchen table and talked over coffee while children's voices skipped to us through the open window. "Shirl, I've been having these dreams," I said. "I keep thinking someone in our family is going to die." I looked down, afraid she might think me silly for believing in my dreams, or perhaps she might think I doubted God's ability to protect us. But when I looked up, her face seemed pale and drawn.

She leaned forward and whispered, "I've been having the same dreams, Anne." Sitting on the stage, looking through the crowd and remembering stories, listening to franchisees talk about the old days when Auntie Anne's first started: everything felt like a dream.

But before I knew it, someone turned off the stage lights, and a rustling began around the edges of the crowd. I thought to myself, "That's it—it's all over, my last convention as owner of Auntie Anne's." Not yet.

Through the darkness I could hear one of my favorite songs beginning, "Go Light Your World." The word LIGHT holds special significance for us at Auntie Anne's, an acronym signifying our statement of purpose: Lead by example, Invest in employees, Give freely, Honor God, and Treat all business contacts with respect.

My corporate employees lit candles all along the edge of the auditorium. The candlelight spilled along the front row, illuminated the faces of my two daughters, LaWonna and LaVale, and sent a shiver down my spine. I could feel Angie. Somehow I just knew she sat there with me. Then the gentle glow of candlelight began to spread.

The light spread through the kitchen in our small trailer home on that Monday morning, September 8, 1975. My bare feet padded across the cold linoleum floor. I turned on the stove and began making breakfast. My journal entry from the day before reads:

Sunday evening we all went to church. My sisters and I didn't sing that night, so I was with Angie in the nursery all evening, which was unusual. She played so much with her cousin Quentin … Came home after the service and made some eggs and things to eat. Angie was quite a character that night. I finally put her to bed at 12:30. She fussed for a while and finally Jonas went in and told her to lay down, and she settled down and went to sleep about 1:00. Checked the girls before we went to sleep, and all was well.

As eggs sizzled and bacon spattered, I heard a sound behind me—imagine my surprise, after a late night, to see Angie's cute little face smiling toward me. She wanted to help with breakfast. Shortly after Angie woke, the house bustled with activity: a group of guys who spoke at our church and spent Sunday night at our house packed their belongings in our small living room, then joined us for breakfast. The morning practically overflowed with life, laughter, happiness, and the growing noise of hungry men eating (knives and forks against plates) while Angie entertained them.

Before they left, we decided to pray. Jonas and I stood together, holding hands, while my daddy blessed the men before they left—Angie wedged her way in between Jonas and me, her tiny hands grasping ours. LaWonna had left a few moments earlier, dashing outside to play with her cousins.

Just as Daddy came to the end of his prayer, he paused, but instead of ending in a typical fashion, he said something strange: "And, Lord, if there is a tragedy today, help us to accept it. Amen."

Those words embarrassed me—how could Daddy pray about tragedies with the long drive these kind men had before them? Jonas and I kind of chuckled it off as another one of my father's eccentric moments. But those words would echo in my mind for the rest of my life; I'm sure I'll never forget them.

Why didn't those words alert me to what was about to happen? Why didn't I do things differently that morning? The next few moments passed in a whirlwind of activity and good-byes and men carrying large bags through the door. Jonas helped them pack all of their things into the car and drove out down the lane—he needed to take them back to our church, where their bus waited to whisk them off to the next church meeting a few hours away. I stood in the doorway, the autumn breeze fresh against my skin. I waved good-bye to them, watched the dust kick up behind Jonas's car. The leaves changed color during those weeks, and the lining trees along the main road just beyond our lane rattled their leaves together.

As I turned to go back inside, Angie darted past me for freedom and her Grandma's house. I watched her move away, her pajamas blowing around her like a cloud as she passed through our yard. For one instant I thought, I should call her back, dress her before she goes to her grandma's. Instead, I walked into the kitchen—I would call Mom and let her know Angie would be there any moment. That split-second decision changed my life forever.

The glow spread through the entire auditorium as hundreds of people lit their candles. The light shone unnaturally, threw shadows against the walls. The song, the radiance, the emotion overwhelmed my senses. I found myself on the verge of fainting, forced to lean on Jonas for support to prevent myself from collapsing under the weight of too much happiness, too much love, too much sadness, and too much grief.

Then came the most tranquil feeling of all: Angie was there. I mean, I could sense her walking through the auditorium. Not in a sad way or a scary way. I simply felt her there, felt her say two things to me.

First she said, "Look what I did for you, Mama!" I could picture her giggling, laughing in that mischievous way that only she could. What would she look like now, at the age of thirty? What would her smile look like? Would her eyes remind people of mine or Jonas's? Would her blond hair have stayed blond?

The second thing she said was, "You did good, Mama. I always knew you could." And then I remembered, she wasn't thirty. I pictured her nineteen-month-old form wandering the auditorium, peering down rows of seats, playing peekaboo with the person seated behind her, all the while her golden curls bouncing like new flowers in a strong spring breeze.

I reached for the phone to call Mom's house and let her know Angie was on her way wearing her pajamas and that I would bring clothes for her after I got the kitchen cleaned up. I can still see my young hand reaching for that green phone: smooth, creaseless. Jonas and I were so innocent then, overjoyed to move into that sixty-foot double-wide trailer, our lives so simple.

But on that day we arrived at the middle of a decade that became both the best and the worst of our lives. The first half of the 1970s presented us with five years of happy marriage and our first two daughters. The second half became a long walk through the kind of darkness I never even knew existed.

It began on that day, September 8. Screaming. That's all I remember. Horrendous screaming and then one single deep voice hollering: the voice of Daddy, but not the voice I usually heard when he played with the grandchildren, scaring them and chasing them around the barn. No, the voice that interrupted my hand reaching for the phone scared me because I had never heard that voice before, full of panic and a too-late despair. Then another round of screaming, this time women's voices.

No, I thought, not Angie.

"Not Angie," I said, pacing a circle in the kitchen, the phone hanging lifeless against the wall where I dropped it. "Not Angie, God, not Angie." As soon as I heard those screams, everything punched me in the gut: the dreams, the premonitions, the realization that everything I felt up to that point about a family member dying actually prepared me for this moment, this screaming nightmare of a moment. I pulled on my hair with both hands. "Dear God, no, not Angie."

I couldn't resist. I walked to the screen door, the front door still open, still letting in that autumn day's fresh breeze. My face pressed up against the wire mesh, my eyes not wanting to look. Running around the corner (that last precious corner where I saw Angie disappear) came Daddy. In his arms he cradled a tiny bundle wrapped in a child's pajamas.

Just as I felt Angie's presence at the convention the strongest, a rustling movement drew my attention down in front of the stage: a small group of employees and family, each of them part of the core group that helped me start the company, walked toward me with their candles lit. My brother-in-law Aaron was there with my sister Becky, my first employees. My mom walked toward the front, looking frail and making slow progress, but still so strong. Then I saw Fi with her dark brown hair and brown eyes, my youngest sister—she always played so much with our younger brothers when we were little, always wanted to play baseball with them or go ice skating or climb trees. When my two sisters are with me, I always feel like I can do just about anything.

The words of the song grew louder, and that small group of friends sang along with the music: Take your candle, and go light your world. I could hear Fi's clear voice ring out above all the rest. If Angie was here, I thought to myself, she would be right there walking beside Fi.

Even back then Fi loved to sing—we'd often hear her beautiful voice ringing clear and loud from wherever she worked. I think singing came naturally to her, but she also got a lot of practice as a little girl singing with me and my older sister, Becky, in bed, the lights off, everyone else quiet in the house. During the fall of 1975, Fi announced her engagement, the last of us three sisters to marry, and she wanted Angie to be her flower girl. Only twenty-two years old on that day of Angie's accident, Fi worked hard for my Daddy's masonry business, scooping sand into the mixer with a shovel. Soon Fi and Ruth, my sister-inlaw, worked through half of the pile of sand, so Fi ran into the neighboring barn for the Bobcat tractor.

Fi knew the grandchildren could be anywhere, so she always took her time backing out. Glancing over her shoulder, she checked to make sure the driveway was clear. Then she backed out and pulled into the barn, ramming the sand forward. She backed again, always checking, always looking.

The next time she looked over her shoulder, she saw Daddy waving his hands frantically and running toward the back of the Bobcat. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a tiny body lying limp where the Bobcat's wheels rolled just moments before. My Angie.

Daddy arrived at the back of the Bobcat, still waving his arms, still yelling, "Stop! Stop!" as he bent over to scoop up her body dressed in pajamas. For years Fi and I spoke of this moment in hushed whispers, just the two of us. I remember more than once Daddy happened to interrupt us discussing the accident. He wanted to talk about it, to tell us what he saw and experienced, but we never let him do it. "No, no," we'd say, "don't talk like that, Daddy," and we'd change the subject. Ours was a private grief, and neither one of us could bear the thought of hearing the details of those last moments. Now his body sleeps in the ground beside Angie's, and I feel horrible for never listening to him, never letting him purge himself of the horrible scene he must have witnessed.

Fi accidentally backed over Angie, nineteen-month-old Angie with the sweet smile and golden curls, and she watched Daddy run off toward my house, carrying the small bundle. Fi knew she was dead.

"I believe she's dead," Daddy choked out in a hoarse voice again and again as he came around the corner of the barn toward where I stood frozen in the frame of our front door. His mouth trembled with emotion. "I believe she's dead. I believe she's dead." I wouldn't take her, so he laid her down on the grass at my feet. She lay motionless and limp, but perfect. Not a drop of blood. Somehow I knew she didn't have a chance.

So I ran. Up and down the sidewalk, in circles, then back and forth again, screaming and pulling my hair. I circled around again and stopped in front of Daddy. I wanted to run away. Just run down the road and through the fields and up into the hills, but I couldn't leave without Angie. I picked her up. Children grow, and we tend to emphasize how big they're getting, but when I picked Angie up, I realized just how light she felt, how little her frame, how fragile her bones. The way she lay in my arms felt so natural, so normal: how could she be dead?

"Oh, Angie, no, Angie, oh no, God." A stream of words, and soon I ran again, this time with her. In the midst of the chaos one thought began growing in my mind: I must get her to the clinic; they can help her at the clinic. I sprinted down the lane toward Daddy's car, still carrying Angie, the stones cutting into my bare feet. I didn't even feel them.

It took a long time for Jonas and I to make our way from the auditorium: days, centuries even. So many congratulations, so many farewells, so many tears and laughs and promises to stay in touch. It felt as though the end had arrived. I grieved the loss of the company with many of the same emotions with which I grieved the loss of Angie. And in many ways that last day of the convention served as the funeral: the tears, the farewells, the support from family and friends. But as I walked through the long halls, stopped again and again by another friend, another story, the smallest margin of doubt crept into my mind: Did I make the right decision? Did I make a mistake in selling this company?

Seemingly out of nowhere, one of our franchisees from California crossed the room and gave me a hug. Small talk. Smiles. Then he looked into my eyes and said something that comforted me: "Anne, I have three words for you: it's all right."

Thirty seconds later, a minute, two minutes, who knows how long, but eventually Fi found herself sitting all alone in an area of chest-high weeds alongside the barn while everyone else raced around in the chaos and tried to herd all the other children together. Her mind closed down as complete shock set in.

She sat there, weeping, staring blindly at the back of Daddy's car as it tore out of the lane, sending stones and dust high in the air, carrying me and Daddy and Angie away. Fi remembers the moment the car turned out of the drive, the eerie silence left behind, and the way she put her feelings into a mason jar, screwed the lid on tight, and never opened it again. Meanwhile, racing away in Daddy's car, I held Angie like a baby, glancing down at her small white face turning the lightest shade of blue. Besides that, she looked perfect, felt perfect.

I held her close to help her fight the growing coldness spreading from the tips of her fingers and up her arms. Then I noticed a ruby red bead of blood coming from first one ear, then the other. Angie's nose began to bleed, just the slightest red sliver. I jerked my head up, stared through the front windshield, as if by not seeing Angie bleeding I could somehow make it not so.

Now, even thirty years later, I ask myself, Why didn't I look at her in those last moments? Why did I look away from her precious face?

Daddy drove quickly. Within five minutes we arrived at the clinic. I ran inside, once again paying no mind to the stones on my bare feet or the way I looked, disheveled and still in my housecoat, stained by Angie's bloody nose and ears. I walked straight up to the counter and gently laid Angie upon it as if she were only sleeping.

"I think she's gone," I whispered without a tear, my voice cracking only slightly.

The receptionist looked taken aback, then dashed around the counter and took Angie. I followed her as she walked quickly back to one of the examination rooms.

My eyes struggled to adjust to the room's dim light. The shadows pressed in. The doctor came and began examining my little girl, holding a stethoscope to her chest, looking in her ears and mouth. I wanted to tell him to be gentle—that she was just a little girl. Such a little girl, so small on that big table. Silence existed, nothing else. Once again I turned away, couldn't watch, only stared at the blinds on the window. The silence became unbearable. Finally I spun around, somehow still held back the emotion, and asked, "Is she gone?" willing him with all my might to say "No, she's almost gone, but we'll fight hard and save her. We can save her." Please say that, I thought, please say you can save her.

The doctor looked up at me with sad eyes, still leaning over Angie, his stethoscope dangling helplessly from his neck. "There is nothing we can do." He pulled the white sheet up over her face.