Leaving her family almost broke her apart, but Sara Bottom found a way to twist together tradition, family, and dreams


Sara Bottom's family with pretzelNine-year-old Sara tucked the $5.00 she’d made that week into her apron pocket. She’d gotten up at four each morning and worked twelve-hour days at her family’s egg stand in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to earn the money. Such hard work and perseverance was expected of all members of the German-speaking Amish community to which she belonged—even of children.

Despite the long hours, Sara loved working at the egg stand, especially when she got to count the earnings at week’s end. She loved everything about the cash box: the smooth feel of the cash, the jingle of coins, the things that hard-earned money could buy. Her family struggled to make ends meet, and she knew she wanted to do better for herself when she grew up. “Working in the egg stand [provided] the defining moments of my life,” Sara says now. “It was then that I realized I wanted to be a businesswoman.”

But that wasn’t going to be easy. “Since male and female roles were very well defined by the traditionalist Christian Church rules of the Ordnung, I knew I would have to leave home in order to pursue my dream,” Sara explains. But could she muster the courage and independence to leave her sheltered life?

Turning “English”

Sara already knew something about being on her own outside the Amish community. When she was six, a car struck the horse and buggy in which she and her family were riding, scattering the roadway with injured family members. Sara ended up in an “English” hospital all alone with a severely torn heel. Her parents had been forced to return home to tend the family farm, their livelihood. “The accident changed my life. I felt so alone and afraid in a world that was foreign to me. Darkness still brings back fears because of a night nurse that was cold and distant to me during my six-week stay,” Sara says with a shudder.

“Through it all, though, I realized that I was a survivor,” Sara continues. And she left the hospital determined that she would find a life in which she would never have to choose between family and work. “The emotional impact of my parents leaving me alone in the hospital taught me the importance of unconditional love.”

On a warm summer day in 1987, Sara’s determination to live a different life led her to act. The seventeen-year-old prepared for her job at a local restaurant just as she did every other day. She arrived at work in her plain Amish dress, apron, and white head covering.

But this day she was prepared to act on a plan that she’d gone over in her head repeatedly. She thought that her parents had left for a week-long vacation and that her chance had finally come. In a back room at the restaurant, she took off the plain dress and apron. She removed her head covering and shook out her long, uncut hair. “Taking off the prayer covering was the hardest thing for me to do because of the Biblical references associated with the cloth,” Sara remembers. Removing the head covering was considered an act of disobedience against God.

She was horror-stricken when her father stopped by unexpectedly to say goodbye to his daughter before leaving town and found instead a teenager wearing a miniskirt and makeup. “Tears streamed down his face at the sight of me in English clothes,” Sara says. “To this day, I can still see the look of devastation because I had taken off my head covering.” That week, a friend helped Sara move her few belongings into a house where several other ex-Amish girls lived. “I had been raised in my home as Amish but left as an English girl,” Sara says.

For years afterward, Sara’s contact with her parents was limited as she was “shamed” following her departure from the Amish community. Would they ever forgive her? Would she ever be able to have their love—and to give them her love—unconditionally? “Nothing,” declares Sara, “is more important to me than love and forgiveness.” But how would she find that balance between family and work that she’d always dreamed of?

A New Life

Sara eventually went to live with Anne Beiler, a woman raised in the Amish community until she was six, when her parents transitioned the family to a more progressive lifestyle. Anne was no longer part of the community, but her heart was deeply rooted in Amish principles: devotion to church, family, hard work, and humility—simple ideas that Sara still believed in, too.

Anne was also a businesswoman, founder of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. She built the successful chain of 1,300 stores worldwide on a promise to God that, if the company succeeded, she would share profits with those less fortunate.

Anne “was like my mother, my best friend, and my mentor,” Sara says. “Anne was there when others wouldn’t or couldn’t be.”

Anne also offered Sara a chance to work on her own dream of being a businesswoman. In 1989, Anne gave her a job as a corporate trainer at the Auntie Anne’s headquarters in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Sara traveled the country teaching new franchisees how to make the signature soft golden-brown pretzels.

After Sara married Michael Bottom in 1999, the two moved to Texas in 2000 and, with Anne’s help, opened their first Auntie Anne’s store at Austin’s Highland Mall. “The financial struggle of starting the business was really hard,” Sara recalls, “like the time we had to leave a cart of groceries in the store because our debit card was declined.” The hard work that began all those years earlier at the egg stand paid off, however. “Michael and I went from not being able to buy a gallon of milk in 2000 to being the owners of seven Auntie Anne Pretzel stores in the local area in 2012,” says Sara.

As a child, Sara had dreamed of finding a life in which her desire to own a business would blend seamlessly with her commitment to love and family. She found that with Michael and her children—but what about with her parents?

This past March, Sara’s parents came to see her for the first time since she left the Amish community. She showed them a pretzel, the symbol of how Sara’s dreams of success intertwine with her dreams of love and family. And her parents smiled.

Last December, the Bottoms, whose children attend Zion Lutheran School, gave one hundred dollars to each of the sixteen Zion Lutheran School eighth graders so that they could help a needy family or individual. Anne Beiler, from whom Sara learned lessons on paying it forward, was on hand to inspire the students.

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”—Mother Teresa

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