An article about us by the Altoona Mirror!

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An article about us by the Altoona Mirror!

Single mother of five uses pretzel-making business to support her household, help others in need

By Cati Keith

DUNLO — Eleven years ago, as mom Heidi Lushko was looking to expand her family, she went doorto-door selling chocolate covered pretzels to raise money to adopt a baby.

Today, that baby is 11 years old, and Sarah’s Gourmet Pretzels is operating in a new space with a new mission, all while providing a living for Lushko and her family.

Before adopting her son, Marcus, Lushko encouraged her family to pray about the adoption process, which can be costly.

That’s when her oldest daughter, Sarah, then 11, said they should go doorto-door selling gourmet pretzels.

It was the spring of 2011, and Lushko admits she only agreed to the endeavor to support her daughter.

She secretly prayed someone would buy the pretzels so they didn’t lose money and was pleasantly surprised that they sold out and she had to make more. While selling the pretzels, several people even volunteered to put the treats in their workplaces. Within a short period of time, items from Sarah’s Gourmet Pretzels were in 32 locations, she said.

After eight months and numerous batches of the treats, the family raised enough for the adoption.

Sarah’s Gourmet Pretzels — named after daughter Sarah — then took a back seat while Lushko cared for her new son and her family, which included daughters Sarah, Emmaleigh, Ella and Anna.

Eight years later, though, Lushko found herself a single mother of five and struggling to make ends meet.

After many people requested the pretzels, the business was officially restarted in 2019, but she also had a photography business and waitressed two nights a week to support her family.

In 2020, she was able to quit both of those jobs and focus on Sarah’s Gourmet Pretzels full time.

Lushko then learned that child trafficking was one of the fastest-growing crimes in the country and felt the need to do something about that statistic. She wasn’t sure what one person could do, though.

“I needed to provide for my kids,” she said, but she also wanted to help people in need, particularly women and children coming out of abusive situations.

The answer was in her kitchen all along.

Today, Sarah’s Gourmet Pretzels partners with the Refuge of Texas, which helps girls rescued from sex trafficking, and Windows of Heaven Global Healing Centers, which help women and children coming out of abuse. 

Lushko also provides life coaching for women coming out of abusive marriages, where her main goal is to help them learn how to gain stability, be a healthy support system for their children and make wise decisions for their safety and well-being.

All of these tie into her business’ mission of “pretzels with a purpose.”

Her dream is to open other locations across the country where those coming out of abuse or trafficking can earn a fair wage as they get back on their feet.

“I have always had a desire to be a voice for the voiceless,” she said.

‘Make a commitment’

To help bring her business idea to fruition, Lushko worked with the Small Business Development Center at Saint Francis University and JARI entrepreneurial coach Blake Fleegle.

Running a small business takes a lot of hard work, Fleegle said.

“The buzzword nowadays is passive income, but running a small business is not that,” he said.

When working with Lushko, he said her humble attitude and quick thinking coupled with her readiness to jump right in and get to work was important.

“Business owners really need to make a commitment,” said Jeff Boldizar, director of the Small Business Development Center.

Lushko’s hope that her pretzels can lead to opportunities for others is a hallmark of small businesses.

“Once a business gets started, it may inspire others to look at starting their own in that community,” Boldizar said.

Family business

Sarah’s Gourmet Pretzels are made by hand, chunky and available in a variety of flavors.

Lushko said customers seem to enjoy the signature blend of chocolate, as well as the caramel and peanut butter, that cover the pretzel rods in a variety of flavors, including mint chocolate cookie explosion, Cookie Monster, smores, dark coffee caramel, white chocolate peanut butter, cookies and cream, M&M meltdown, cashew caramel turtle, rocky road, raspberry and cream and triple chocolate.

Many of those flavors are the brainchild of Emmaleigh, 19, who is artsy and comes up with a lot of the new flavor ideas, Lushko said.

Creating the tasty masterpieces takes a while because “we make everything by hand and we look at them as a piece of art,” she said.

Ella, 16, is the most beautiful caramel maker, Lushko said, and Anna, 15, is in charge of quality control and boxes a lot of orders.

“She goes through the pretzels and if they are too skinny, she will say ‘Mom, this is dud — we are not selling this,’” she said.

Marcus helps with labeling and stickering.

Emmaleigh has also jumped into advertising, improving the gourmet pretzels’ social media presence and revamping the website.

Sarah, the daughter behind the startup, is now 22 and pursuing online college classes. She no longer lives at home, Lusko said.

So far, Sarah’s Gourmet Pretzels can be found in 10 counties, but Lushko has sent orders across the country through online ordering.

Along with family members, friends Brenna Gerhardt and Carrie Antesberger help out, with Gerhardt making sure the kitchen operation runs smoothly and Antesberger making deliveries.

“Working with Heidi and the kids has been so much fun — we all work well together to get the job done,” Gerhardt said.

Antesberger agrees. “Their mission to stop child trafficking in the United States is admirable and worth supporting,” she said.

Time to be a mom

As the business continues to thrive, Lushko said she is thankful it allows her the flexibility to spend time being a mom.

“One of our family mottos is ‘We work together, we play together’ and this ties right into our business,” she said.

“I look forward to when my kids get home from school and they head straight out to the pretzel kitchen to talk,” she said, noting that her own mother had a home-based business when she was growing up

“I have many fond after-school memories of great talks and laughter,” she said. “Day after day, I would sit down in her orthodontic lab in our home and tell her all about my school day and life.

“My mom’s business in our home set the stage for great conversations and bonding. And now I also treasure having our pretzel business at our home and the many great conversations that my kids and I have — even while I’m working,” she said.

For Mother’s Day, Lushko said the family will go out to eat with her dad and then head out for a bike ride on the Ghost Town Trail. If the weather isn’t great, they will play board games, drink hot tea and “hopefully have my favorite dessert — chocolate chip cookies.”

“But on the rare occasion that it will be really hot outside, we will actually be tubing down the Stonycreek as this is my first choice of Mother’s Day celebrations,” she said.


Mirror Staff Writer Cati Keith can be found at 814-946-7535

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