BY DAVID L. BARBER
Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Business magazine's Winter 2019 issue. For more stories from the magazine, click here to read GT Business in its entirety online.
TRAVERSE CITY — Washed, dropped, sliced, paddled, boiled and bagged, the process of turning fist-sized potatoes into nickle-thick chips is swift and, in the end, savory, at the Great Lakes Potato Chip Company.
Located on M-72 about three miles west of Traverse City, the business has been producing kettle-cooked chips for nine years. What began as a father-son operation that was supported by family and friends has become an award-winning business that is enjoying a favorable, and flavored, growing spurt.
Great Lakes Potato Chip is the only northwest Lower Michigan business included in the 2018 Inc. 5000, an annual ranking by Inc. Magazine of the fastest-growing private companies in America.
“We continue to grow at a rate of about 30 percent a year,” said business co-owner, Ed Girrbach, who founded the business with his son and partner, Chris. “We think for the next two or three years we could continue at that rate. Our goal is to become one of the top five preeminent facilities in the country.”
And if the slightly altered axiom rings true — “the proof is in the potato” — Girrbach and his son, Chris, just might be on their way to achieving that goal.
At the 2016 The Potato Chip Festival held in Saratoga, New York — the consensus birthplace of the potato chip — the Girrbachs carried home the Gold Medal for the Best Kettle Chip. Their tortilla chip also was honored. Dozens of potato chip manufacturers from across the nation took part in that inaugural competition.
Swift production? From start to finish — being washed and sliced, to dropped and sealed into colorful packaging — takes about 20 minutes; in the middle of which the “chipped” potatoes are paddle-stirred and boiled for about eight minutes before being seasoned by hand, said the 69-year-old business entrepreneur.
Girrbach said his 14,000-square-foot business produced about 25 million ounces of kettle chips in the past year, which translates to about 1.56 million pounds.
“We always thought this company could get to that level,” said Girrbach. “We did our homework and we bought in to the right product, at the right time.”
Delivered to seven states and Canada, the company’s benchmark chip is its Original Kettle Cooked Potato Chip. Other flavors include Michigan Cherry BBQ, Sea Salt and Vinegar, Sea Salt Pepper and Onion, Buffalo Wing Potato Chips and Parmesan Ranch Potato Chips.
“All our chips are produced with their skins on,” said Girrbach. “That enhances the taste.”
Long retired from Merrill Lynch, where he worked for 28 years, Girrbach operated Pangea’s Pizza in downtown Traverse City for a few years. Girrbach said he and his son sometimes sat and talked about “opening a new business, from scratch.”
After considering the possibilities they decided to “go all in” on producing potato chips.
“We considered our options, we did our due diligence,” he said. “At the time, there was just one manufacturer of potato chips in the state, and that was in Detroit. We thought there was a hole in Michigan for this type of operation — we thought there definitely was an opportunity for a chip manufacturer. And that led us to say, ‘okay, let’s do this.’ We did or homework.
“Michigan is the number one state for producing chipping potatoes in the United States, so that was a big plus. We didn’t have to travel far to buy our potatoes.”
Once the Girrbachs located a building to house their operation, Girrbach said “we had to change it into a food manufacturing facility.”
“Needless to say, that took a lot of work,” he said.
Like many neophyte companies, The Great Lakes Potato Chip Company started out small, with Girrbach and his son — aided by family and friends — doing all the work. But each new year brought new growth. Today the company has 35 employees.
“We’ve developed a great team,” said Girrbach. “We have two shifts and we work closely together.
“I get a great deal of satisfaction knowing we’ve created something that can support 35 families. I get a great deal of satisfaction out of working with my son.
“What we did was very capital intensive, especially in the beginning. Chris and I never took an income for our first five years. We took the risks, and they paid off.”
The younger Girrbach said he enjoyed working for years with his father at their Pangeas Pizza in Traverse City, and enjoys working with his father at their potato chip business today.
“My dad and I have a good time working together and our strengths really compliment each other,” said Chris Girrbach, 39.
“It has been both fun and very challenging to create Great Lakes Potato Chips. We have a great team that all have made growing and being successful possible.”
So how did the Girrbachs come about naming their potato chip business?
“Our region is beautiful, one of the most beautiful places in the world,” said the elder Girrbach. “Our names tells people, ‘hey, this product is coming from a real cool place — a beautiful place. We tried to capture the feel of the Great Lakes, of this area – the northern Great Lakes area.
“Another thing about our product — our business — is that’s a truly a ‘green’ one. We have very little waste. That’s important to us.”
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