SHIPSHEWANA — Turns out you can make more with a little bit of flour, a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of yeast and a some water than just a soft pretzel.
You can build a home for someone in need.
Ben and Elizabeth Miller, owners of Ben’s Pretzels, the Shipshewana-based company they founded in 2004, were out in the parking lot of their Shipshewana store Thursday morning working in a portable kitchen making and selling pretzels. Their goal was to raise at least $5,200, money they said will used to build a simple, one-room cement block building a family in Nicaragua can call home.
Ben worked the kitchen’s counter, hand rolling out dozens and dozens of pretzels. He placed them nine at a time on a cooking sheet and then popped them into a hot, hot oven to bake for six minutes.
Miller worked hard to stay ahead of the traffic pulling into the store’s parking lot. Helping Miller prep and sell the pretzels were his wife, Elizabeth and several of the couple’s children.
Inside, the store was just as busy as the drive thru. That was good news for the Millers because they’d hoped to sell enough pretzels on this one day at just $1 a piece to cover the cost of one new home in Nicaragua. The Millers are donating all the Shipshewana store’s proceeds to their mission.
Thursday’s event all started two years ago when Ben Miller visited Nicaragua for the first time. He said he’d never forget what he saw there — single mothers and their children living in paper and metal shacks covered by little more than worn out blue tarps located on top of old mines. The materials these people used to make their homes was pulled from nearby dumps.
“I went there and saw the devastation, the places where they live,” he said. “To be there, to see it, to smell it, to feel the heat, it was unbelievable. I’ll never forget what I saw.”
Encouraged to make a difference whereever they can, the Millers decided not only to be involved in local outreach programs, but have joined forces with a Texas organization known as the King’s Ransom Foundation to build homes for those poor people Miller met in Nicaragua. Dozens of other people and businesses have joined together with King’s Ransom to promise to build 462 new homes for the poor across Nicaragua. Ben Miller said he and his wife have personally pledged to try and raise at least $20,000 over the next several months to fund several new homes in Nicaragua.
“We committed to raising enough for four homes,” he said. “Today was just the first step, a way of getting the word out there.”
The houses will be simple, cement block structures with a small kitchen area and enough room to sleep a family of at least four. Miller said the new homes also will keep everyone dry when it rains, something their homes now cannot do.
“It’s mind-boggling to see how they live,” he added.
In addition to getting a new home, each family helped by the program will receive a foot-operated sewing machine so that that family has the ability to make items they can sell at local markets.
Centreville, Michigan, natives, the Millers first arrived in Shipshewana when they opened a bakery on the south edge of town. In an attempt to grow the business beyond Shipshewana, they started selling baked goods at the South Bend farmers market. That’s where Ben and Elizabeth Miller were offered a chance to purchase a pretzel booth.
Ironically, they only learned when they sat down to close the deal that the booth was the only thing for sale. The business’s owner would not sell the Millers the business name, or share the pretzel recipe. Still they bought the booth. Elizabeth Miller quickly developed a pretzel recipe of her own, based on a recipe she read in a cookbook she owned. She called that recipe a divine gift.
Today, a chain of Ben’s Pretzel stores stretches across the United States, with 85 stores located in dozens of states, including Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Arizona and Texas. The Millers own four stores, and Ben Miller along with his business partners own another five stores. The rest are owned by franchisees.
“It takes a lot of faith to grow a business like this,” Miller said as he continued to roll out and twist pieces of dough into the familiar pretzel shape.
“We have a goal that’s bigger than ourselves,” Elizabeth said. “We are the answer to their prayers.”
In addition to selling pretzels, the Millers are accepting donations.