Kettle Mettle: Great Lakes Potato Chip expands output at new facility

Growth simply for growth’s sake can be a shaky business proposition.

On the other hand, Traverse City-based Great Lakes Potato Chip Co. (GLPC) shows that a company with growth on its mind can succeed. The formula is anything but simple: It requires an attractive product, the right equipment, motivated employees and solid management experience.

The 12-year-old company has found its niche. That’s not easy when multi-billion-dollar competitors dominate the landscape. From the start, though, GLPC offered an alternative. For one thing, unlike most competitors, it makes only kettle chips. Owners Ed Girrbach and his son Chris also decided to leave the skins on the potatoes, which Chris says appeals to lots of customers’ taste buds.

“It also means there are more nutrients,” he said.

GLPC, which markets primarily in the Midwest may never become a huge player nationally, but it’s had impressive, steady growth … enough so that it recently moved to a new facility on Commerce Drive, just west of Turtle Creek Stadium.

“We had a 15,000 square-foot plant before,” Chris said. “We were maxed out there. Actually, we were way beyond maxed out.”

More space and an investment in new equipment have expanded GLPC’s output, which had been making 1,200 pounds of chips per hour at its old facility.

“Now we can make as much as 1,600 pounds per hour – and we’re pretty sure we’ll continue to grow,” Chris said, adding that if demand continues to expand in the short term, GLPC will be able to increase production to around 2,200 pounds per hour.

“With the new facility, we should be okay for the next couple of seasons,” he said. “Maybe then we’ll have to invest again in some added capacities.”

The trick for business decision-makers is to know when the time has come to expand. Getting too far ahead of the curve can lead to a disaster. Chris said that GLPC’s facility and equipment upgrade was carefully considered. That cautious approach fostered by Ed has paid off.

“(My dad) worked for Merrill Lynch, so he gained a lot of experience with small businesses and he has been a SCORE counselor,” said Chris, who handles sales. “He’s always liked business and has understood how to make good decisions, especially when it comes to investments.”

From his dad’s experience, Chris says that Ed realized timing was good for launching GLPC.

“We realized there was a spot for a product like ours: Regional demand was strong,” he said. “With the pandemic, I’d say it’s grown even stronger.”

Chris says that he and his dad enjoy starting companies and then growing them. The Girrbachs previously owned Pangea’s Pizza, a popular downtown Traverse City restaurant.

“We also enjoy creating jobs and being able to increase the pay and benefits for employees,” he said.

Like virtually every Up North manufacturer, GLPC faces challenges finding and retaining employees.

“Staffing is hard,” he said. “There’s a lot of manufacturing here, and not enough people to fill those slots.”

He points to the push to go to college that was prevalent for years.

“Now we have a real gap – lots of trades folks are retiring,” he said. “I have three kids. I tell them that you don’t have to college. There are other options. The trades are great.”

As GLPC continues on, Chris says that the team will continue “pushing the envelope” as they look to grow their team of 40 or so employees. Over the past few years, several new front office employees have been hired, including a full-time accountant, a COO and other management positions.

“We’re always looking for good people who want to be part of our production team,” he said. “I’d say we’d never pass up a good employee.”

The Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Council (GTAMC) sponsors this column. The mission of GTAMC is to support a sustainable and globally competitive manufacturing sector for a stronger economy. Learn more about membership options at