Ask any regular visitor to Grand Traverse County for a quintessential Michigan experience, and they’ll likely send you to Grand Traverse Pie Company for pie.
Michigan produces bountiful crops of cherries, berries, and apples, but it took two homesick Michigan State alums to turn those crops into pie for the masses.
Grand Traverse Pie Company founders Mike and Denise Busley grew up in Michigan and moved to California after graduating from college to pursue careers in engineering and business, respectively. By the mid ’90s, however, they had two children and were feeling the pull of home.
“We asked ourselves how we could make a living in Traverse City,” Busley says. “We were surprised no one was doing pie like this, and that told us it was either not an opportunity or it was an awesome opportunity.”
Twenty years and 16 locations later, the verdict is in. It was an opportunity.
“Most people approach pie as a passion, but we approached it as, ‘Can we create a pie shop that’s efficient, high quality, and scalable?’” he says.
The first location opened in 1996, and a second was added in 1999, both of them serving pie only.
Pie sales peak around Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, and in summertime, when vacationers flock to Michigan. Grand Traverse Pie Company creates more than 50 kinds of pie and sells an average of 80–90 pies per day per store—and as many as 450 pies per day out of the original location during high-tourist season. The biggest seller year-round is the chicken pot pie, which was added in 2002 when the Busleys decided to offer a few lunch items. That was the first step toward turning Grand Traverse Pie into a bakery-café concept.
“We could see what Panera had done—basing a bakery-café concept on bread—and we saw that we could evolve into a concept where people had reasons to come in every day, too,” Busley says.
The café menu includes the GT Chicken Salad sandwich, made with Michigan dried cherries on a croissant, and the GT Grilled Cheese with Cheddar and Havarti cheeses, cherrywood-smoked bacon, and tomatoes on sourdough bread. Sandwiches are priced between $7 and $9. Other menu items include soups, salads, and wraps. The sweets go beyond pie with cookies, muffins, and cinnamon rolls.
Once established as a bakery-café, Grand Traverse Pie started franchising. The company grew the fastest in 2004 and 2005, right after it started franchising and before the recession began. At that point, Busley says, it felt as if the brand was growing too quickly, so the team decided to slow things down and stop franchising. Today, growth continues through corporate stores.
Grand Traverse Pie also aims to integrate into the communities it serves. The company’s second store is dubbed the “Community Shop” because all of its profits go to the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, which earmarks funds for local, youth-focused programs.
“Our desire is to deepen our roots within each community,” Busley says. “We can’t do that and grow fast and still have a quality of life for me, my wife, and the senior staff. We want to have balance.”
Grand Traverse Pie Company
FFOUNDERS: Mike & Denise Busley
HQ: Traverse City, Michigan
YEAR STARTE: 1996
TOTAL UNITS: 16
FRANCHISE UNITS: 8
Once Grand Traverse Pie began expanding, the Busleys found that the hardest thing to replicate from store to store was the piecrust, so a central kitchen was created.
The pies themselves are still baked daily in stores using those crusts. A 9-inch pie is priced between $16 and $20, depending on the filling, and a 6-inch pie is $8–$10. Slices are about $3.50. Busley says concept-wide, sales are about 55 percent pie and 45 percent other menu items. In Traverse City, pie sales are slightly higher.
While lunch is the busiest daypart, breakfast also ticked up when Grand Traverse Pie introduced quiches. Now morning offerings also include breakfast sandwiches, wraps, baked goods, and coffee.
The company offers catering, accounting for as much as 15 percent of sales at some locations. It also ships pies. Whether carried out, eaten in the store, or shipped, the most popular pies are apple and cherry, with pumpkin beating them out only in November.
Most of the fruit inside the pies is grown in Michigan, and that’s where Grand Traverse Pie plans to grow, too. Busley says gradual growth—one or two new stores a year—will lead to brand longevity.
For the Busleys, a great pie requires quality ingredients and proper execution of the recipe—by hand. It must also be baked properly and slowly.
“Pie needs pride,” he says. “If the people making the pie every day feel they are in a good location that is supported by the community, then you’re not just popping something into an oven; you’re a part of something.”