Auntie's Awakening

By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

GAP, Pa.

Her name is as familiar and cozy as the hot pretzels and cold lemonade she used to sell. Auntie Anne. So easy to imagine her in an apron, arms open for a hug, rosy cheeks powdery with flour. From Buffalo to Bangkok, Anne Beiler built her fortune, kiosk by kiosk, food court by food court, on a deceptively simple recipe.

But success is not what Auntie Anne is seeking anymore.

Sorrow is what the queen of pretzels can't seem to get enough of now.

Sorrow is what she confronts, accepts, analyzes and collects these days -- a zealous investigator of aching hearts, bagging shell casings from an endless crime scene. Gather enough and it stops hurting. She should know.

"My philosophy is: Life is hard but God is good. Try not to confuse the two," she explains in the conference room of the elegantly converted barn that serves as headquarters of the personal foundation she established after selling Auntie Anne's Pretzels to a distant cousin two years ago. The business she launched as a young housewife at a farmers market 20 years ago is a $293 million international enterprise now with more than 925 locations worldwide. Under her signature Wedgwood blue sign, seaweed-flavored pretzels are sold in Singapore, date pretzels in Saudi Arabia.

At 58, Beiler is a stylish grandmother with a blond shag and a penchant for riding Harleys; a fallen Mennonite in a maroon flowered top with just a tease of black lace at the decolletage. Untethered from the demands of pretzeldom, she is in tell-all mode pending the March release of her autobiography, "Twist of Faith." Hers is not the sunny tale you might expect from a self-made housewife millionaire.

From the very beginning, it turns out, Auntie Anne had her roots in the swallowed pain of her Amish home town, a place called, fittingly enough, Gap. The lives of the Amish and non-Amish "English" intersect nonchalantly in this blink of a town in the shadow of the kitschy tourist corridors of Lancaster County. Here, no one looks twice when horse-drawn buggies trot through the bank's drive-through lane. Behind the Rockwellian facade, though, are some deeply troubled lives with secrets Anne Beiler is only now beginning to discover since being liberated from her own.

Both Anne and her husband, Jonas, were born to Amish parents. Anne's family switched to a slightly less conservative Mennonite church when she was 3 -- "we could have electricity and drive a black car," she explains -- and Jonas made a similar conversion on his own at 16. "I didn't like horses," he shrugs. It was horse power he craved, turning his fascination with engines into a career in custom auto body repair and restoration.

He met Anne at a Mennonite youth group, and they married when she was 19 and Jonas, 21. They joined an evangelical Christian church, became youth pastors and quickly started a family of their own. Life was simple and contained.

In 1975, tragedy struck. Angela was the Beilers' second daughter -- "19 months and 12 days old" on the day she died, her mother recalls, still tearing up 32 years later. The toddler was killed in a farming accident, run over by a tractor. Anne's older sister was driving. The child's death shattered the Beilers, plunging each parent into a private, fathomless grief. "Our seven years of silence" is how Jonas describes it now.

"She thought I was doing okay, and I thought she was doing okay," he recalls. "The truth is, we were both dying inside. What dies inside us while we still live is very tragic."

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