Ed Girrbach was always an entrepreneur, starting his first business when he was in his tweens. After spending many years in the financial industry, Ed moved to Michigan where his sons, both working in foodservice, also happened to be. Ed and his son, Chris, started a successful restaurant in Traverse City, then eventually sold it and were looking to do something else in the food industry when they started Great Lakes Potato Chip Company in 2010.
The company is a salty snack manufacturer, producing seven flavors of kettle-cooked potato chips with their skins on. It also produces two flavors of salsas and two varieties of tortilla chips, which are also uniquely made through kettle cooking. The method of cooking the chips via kettle has been an important selling point for the business.
“Most potato chips, like Lays, are produced using continuous frying,” says Ed Girrbach, co-founder and owner of Great Lakes Potato Chip Company. “In that process, after they slice the potatoes, they wash the potatoes because otherwise the slices would stick together in the fryer. But in a kettle process, you don’t have to do that, so you get a stronger potato flavor.”
The company’s 14,000 sq. ft. plant is relatively small, but employs over 30 full-time workers and processes over 80,000 lbs. of potatoes per week. It uses 17 distributors to supply customers in seven states, which includes those surrounding the Great Lakes as well as Texas, Tennessee and areas in Canada.
Great Lakes Potato Chip Company primarily sources its chipping potatoes from a family-owned farm located in Michigan. After the growing season, the producer stores over 100 million lbs. of potatoes in facilities, which enables Great Lakes to get 90 percent of its potatoes from the grower.
About half of the company’s business is in foodservice, but one area of success it has found is in co-packing for smaller restaurants and grocery stores. In fact, producing for private label is now 12 percent of the company’s business, and that is expected to grow to 20 percent by next year.
“This is kind of a niche for us,” says Girrbach. “Every year shelf space gets eaten up by store brands.”
Since the smaller chains are recognizing the competitive factor of selling their own brands, Great Lakes Potato Chip Company found that because it is a small boutique chip manufacturer, it can help meet their needs.
“There is real demand out there from these companies to make private label products,” Girrbach says.
Ed’s son Chris, who talks regularly with businesses looking for a manufacturer to fill their orders, says many of these smaller chains can’t go to bigger chip producers because the minimum order required is five trucks. And smaller restaurants don’t need or want five truckloads of product.
“But we can produce three pallets because we don’t have lines that never stop. So we can change film pretty easily,” says Chris Girrbach. “That makes it attractive for us to do their business.”
Because there has been a lot of consolidation in the salty-snacks industry, there are actually very few smaller chip manufacturers left, he says. And of those that still exist, they don’t seem to be going after that private label business aggressively.
“It’s been pretty neat to work with these companies because they are so invested in their brands and it’s fun when a company is excited about growing their brands,” Chris Girrbach says.
The growth speaks for itself— Great Lakes Potato Chip Company made $60,000 in 2010 and will get close to $4 million in sales in 2017. The company is in the midst of doubling its capacity right now, which comes a few years after it initially doubled its capacity.
When the Girrbachs were looking for ideas to start a food business, they originally considered the microbrewery market, but decided not to do beer. They instead looked at potato chips and realized years ago there were many regional chip manufacturers that have gone away.
“Everyone used to have a local brand that you bought,” Chris Girrbach says. “We felt, much like the beer market, that people would look for a salty snack that is regional, local and unique. And I think we’ve proven that out.”