GR Gets Slice of Grand Traverse

June 1, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — One of the nation's hottest pie companies is about to give Grand Rapids a piece of the action.

Grand Traverse Pie Co. of Traverse City aims to open its tenth store on June 25 at

3224 28th St. SE
, opposite the WoodlandShopping Center in Kentwood. Not bad for a company that started from scratch in 1996 and will probably have at least 12 stores in Michigan and one in Indiana by the end of this year.

Actually, Grand Traverse Pie Co. is more than a bakery. It is a bakery-café, similar to Panera Bread — only it is focused on pies. Each shop is a bakery and a café with a complete menu for dine-in, take-out and catering, meeting a wide range of tastes in breakfast, lunch and dinner. Menu items include a variety of baked goods and sandwiches — and everything pie-like, naturally including quiches and pot pies. There are also quesadillas, wraps, soups and salads. The lunch menu alone features more than 30 items.

But pies were the launching pad for the success of Grand Traverse Pie Co., and its specialty — cherry pie — brought the company to the attention of the likes of celebrity chef Mario Batali and the Food Network.

Mike and Denise Busley didn't know anything about making pies when they decided to change careers in the mid-1990s. The Michigan natives had married and moved to Southern California after graduating from MichiganStateUniversity in 1980. Mike worked as an aerospace engineer, and Denise was in medical sales.

In 1995, with kids ages 5 and 10, the Busleys decided they wanted to move back to MichiganTraverse City, specifically — and do something fun for a living. One day they wandered into a family-owned pie shop near San Diego and fell in love with the idea of establishing their own pie business. The shop owner, Liz Smothers, eventually shared all her professional secrets with the Busleys, who opened their original Grand Traverse Pie Co. shop in downtown Traverse City in 1996.

At first, the outlet was pies-only; mainly fruit pies made with Michigan fruit, and of course, cherry was first on the pie menu. Traverse City is in the heart of cherry country: Michigan's western Lower Peninsula leads the world in red-tart cherry production.

The tart cherry harvest can fluctuate wildly from year to year, due to crop-killing frosts, but the harvest has been as high as a market-glutting 297 million pounds (2001), so any successful, large-scale use of tart cherries makes a lot of Michigan farmers happy.

The Busleys did their homework on making pies — the secret is in the crust — and word spread of their delectable pies made with Michigan fruits and berries. A major break came with the June 2001 issue of Men's Journal magazine, which featured an article by Chef Batali.

"I don't think I've had as good a pie as the Grand Traverse Pie Co.'s cherry crumb pie. It's a religious experience," wrote Batali.

Today, the stores use more than 1 million pounds of Michigan produce and employ 30 to 40 people at each location.

Early on, the Busleys realized they had to expand beyond pies for a successful, year-round business. Mike Busley said the overall best selling item on the menu is probably the company's cherry chicken salad sandwich. And the best-selling fruit pie is cherry.

"It has been from day one, and always will be," said Busley. "We use a lot of apples, a lot of cherries and a lot of blueberries (grown in Michigan). Probably half (of all the fruit used) is cherries."

The pies can be ordered on-line for delivery or pickup, and come in a variety of sizes, from a small, six-inch mini pie to a 20-inch pie that feeds 60 people or more. The standard-sized (nine-inch) pie ranges in price from $13 to $16.

Total annual sales from all the shops combined is probably around $15 million now, Busley said.

"Each store runs like the original here in Traverse City," said Busley, "making all the pies, baked goods … everything The only item they don't make in the store is the pie dough, and that's made up here so we can control the quality and consistency."

The pie crust "is really the most critical element," added Busley.

The Grand Rapids store is owned by a corporation recently formed by Dave Standfest and his four adult children. The Standfests are from the Traverse City area; Mark and Brent, 30-year-old twins, are moving to the Grand Rapids area to manage the

28th Street
store. Both were partners in a Subway franchise in Traverse City. Another of the Standfest sons, Brian, also owns a food service franchise.

The Standfests own all Grand Traverse Pie Co. franchise rights in KentCounty, and hope to open additional pie stores in the county over the next five years. Each store requires a minimum investment of about $500,000 for the equipment, said Dave Standfest.

Cherry pie may be a religious experience for Chef Batali, but Standfest is approaching the pie business from a real religious experience: He is the pastor of New HopeCommunityChurch in Williamsburg, a few miles northeast of Traverse City. Standfest, 60, formed the church 17 years ago "with 14 people in the living room of a home."

Today, New HopeCommunityChurch is one of the largest non-denominational congregations in the region, and the church facilities and property are valued at $8 million, according to Standfest.

For the time being, he will remain in Williamsburg as "Pastor Dave" at New Hope

"It will be a career change, over time," said Standfest, regarding his new venture in the for-profit business with Grand Traverse Pie Co.

Standfest said his family is very close-knit, stating, "We started looking for opportunities for us as a family. We weren't even thinking about the Grand Traverse Pie Co."

The family's ideas had been ranging farther a field, even to out-of-state possibilities. But for several years they had been buying the company's pies for family get-togethers. One day it dawned on them that the product "was something we all believed in," describing it as "the Cadillac of pies." And that was one of its obvious marketing strengths, he added.

"If you ever have an event where you want to impress the people you are bringing together, you have to have Grand Traverse pies," he said.

In addition to the original store in Traverse City, Grand Traverse Pie Co. stores are now located in Burton (near Flint), Okemos, Sterling Heights, Brighton, Petoskey, Ann Arbor, Mount Pleasant and Norton Shores. Busley said other new stores will open this year in Troy and East Lansing, and one in Terra Haute, Ind., in July. There also may be stores coming soon to Midland and Holland, he added.

The Norton Shores store opened in the Lakes Mall in October, 2005. It is owned and operated by Tina Divita, who had previous food service experience as a sous chef.

"This is the first time I have owned my own business. It's wonderful," she said.

The café is busiest on Saturdays, and it is open every day of the year. Divita said she also does a lot of lunch catering during the week to businesses and other organizations — "a lot of doctors' offices" — saying about 15 percent of her business is catering. Catered lunches run an average of $6 to $8 per person.     

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