Keep it simple is a reliable mantra for success in the restaurant business but for Grand Traverse Pie Co., offering a wider range of menu items is proving to be a winning recipe for the Traverse City-based bakery and café company.
Michigan natives Mike and Denise Busley — who were living and working in California in the mid-1990s — got the idea for the distinctive eatery after they wandered into a little pie shop in San Diego.
“We fell in love with the pie, the cute, homey business, and the area,” says Mike who was working in the defense industry and Denise in medical sales. He says the couple was missing something from their jobs and they were looking for a reason to come back to Michigan, where they met (Michigan State University) and had family.
“We wanted to create that same essence in Traverse City that was in that shop, Julian Pie Co.” Mike connected with Liz Smothers, owner of Julian Pie, and she helped him with his business plan and recipes to start their own pie shop.“We began to think: ‘Could we create a pie company in Michigan?” He says they knew they wanted to move to Traverse City because the city was economically stable and offered a lot of big city amenities but also had a small town feel.
So in 1996, with six employees and a menu that consisted of only seasonal pies and a handful of other confections, Mike and Denise opened a single 4,000-square-foot store in downtown Traverse City. Their first-year revenue was $500,000.
For the first two years, the couple continued to refine the business, its flow, and learned to manage costs and equipment all the while introducing themselves to the community. In 1999, a second shop opened in Brighton, and a third location came on line a year later in Okemos. However, in 2001, when the fourth shop failed to gain traction in Indiana, Busley took it as an opportunity to take a different approach to grow the company.
He says when people in the community learned about how he and Denise started the pie company, they received requests from would-be entrepreneurs with similar food business operations needing help. With these people in mind, Busley began to consider the idea of turning the Grand Traverse Pie into a franchise.
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“It’s still our name, and it’s still our message, but it’s a different relationship than a partnership,” Busley says.
The couple hired a consultant to guide the company through a feasibility study, and in 2003, the franchise side of Grand Traverse Pie was launched. Since then, the company has been adding at least one new location per year, including a restaurant in Indiana.
As the franchise continued to grow in store numbers, so did the menu. Rather than maintain eight types of fruit pie, along with assorted muffins and cookies, Busley decided to add quiches, chicken potpies, soups, salads, wraps, and sandwiches, which transformed the original pie shop into a bakery and café.
Busley says apart from the company’s single store in Indiana, they don’t have plans to expand outside of Michigan. “We ship pies across the country, but we feel there are many communities in Michigan that we are not in yet that would make a great partnership,” he says. “Fast growth is not what we’re interested in; we want to build relationships.”
Today, there are 16 company-owned franchises, 325 employees, and annual revenue of nearly $25 million, with plans to continue to gain more prominence.
As a bakery and café with a pie-centric core, he considers Panera and Cosi as his primary competitors. But he looks at his company’s core focus on pie as the differentiator that sets them apart. “There is some overlap in our menu, but we feel like our core items are unique to us,” he says. “We need to be on our game to be relevant and successful in our marketplace, because we know (our competitors) are.”
Moving forward, Busley plans to add stores in Grand Rapids, along the state’s western shoreline, the Upper Peninsula, and in Detroit’s Midtown district. “I want to be fully engaged with my business, just like I was 20 years ago when we started,” he says. “I didn’t do this just to be a franchise owner. I did this to own and operate Grand Traverse Pie Co. in Traverse City.”
Traverse City Pie Co.
Headquarters: Traverse City
Founders: Mike and Denise Busley
Locations: 15 Michigan, 1 Indiana
Products: Pies, quiches, soups, salads, wraps, and sandwiches
Annual Revenue: $25 million