A kraut company reinvents itself for the 21st century

September 24, 2015

Sauerkraut may not be sexy, but it’s got staying power.

GLK FoodsGLK Foods is proof of that. The company set out to corner the sauerkraut market when it made the strategic choice to grow and become a leader in the segment starting about 20 years ago. Today the 115-year-old company is thriving, not only producing more sauerkraut than in all of western Europe combined, according to company literature, but diversifying with new products aimed at attracting and keeping new customers, too.

“Other people are interested in, say, sexier products than kraut,” said Chairman of the Board Ryan A. Downs. “We’re focused on innovations in the kraut industry.”

Focus on Growth

GLK is an evolution of Flanagan Brothers, a company that began four generations ago in Bear Creek, Wisconsin. It was founded by – surprise – the Flanagan brothers, who were grandfather and uncle to Downs, now 71. He can remember growing up working around the company, though he went off to college and other jobs before coming back to join his cousin in taking over the plant. In the late 1990s, GLK formed a joint venture with a kraut operation in upstate Shortsville, New York, while purchasing and then consolidating production from multiple other plants into the Wisconsin and New York locations.

“I think we bought and closed 17 plants in Wisconsin and New York,” Downs said. “We just felt if we consolidated into a couple of larger, efficient operations, we would become more efficient and dominate the kraut industry.”

Along the way, Downs also bought his cousin out; today, his son, Ryan M. Downs, 37, is majority owner and in charge of day-to-day operations.

Broadening Its Mission

Headquartered in Appleton, Wisconsin, Great Lakes Kraut Co. was renamed GLK Foods in 2010 to reflect the company’s mission to diversify beyond sauerkraut.

“We were pretty dominant in the category of sauerkraut, and I just thought with our distribution, it was an opportunity to grow into other niche product lines,” said the younger Downs. “We have such an advantage because we have performed for years now, we have the trust, and it’s easy for me to pitch new ideas.

“We’re having some really nice successes with things that are adjacent to kraut but not kraut.”

Besides traditional sauerkraut, GLK was the first to offer a 100 percent organic sauerkraut, its Cortland Valley Organic brand. A new line of flavored krauts, Saverne, comes in Sriracha, Curtido, dill and garlic, Bavarian, and craft beer and curry flavors. It’s OH SNAP! pickles are packaged in stand-up snack pouches and aimed at the snacking crowd. The company also produces single-serve packages of sauerkraut and jalapeno pepper slices.

“They’re catching on a lot in C-stores and specialty markets,” the older Downs said, while his son notes, “We’re just getting warmed up.”

On the marketing side, GLK continues to explore innovative ways to get their products in front of new audiences – Green Bay Packers fans attending games at Lambeau Field among them.

Fully Automated

With about 170 full-time employees between the New York and Wisconsin operations, the company annually processes about 140,000 tons of raw cabbage grown on family farms. The entire system is automated.

“The seeds are planted automatically, they’re (cabbage) harvested by machine, and then in the plant it isn’t touched at all,” Downs said. “We use a machine to shred and grade and discard the unusable parts of the cabbage.”

In the old days, the kraut was hauled manually, by cart, to the edge of a vat and dumped in. People inside the vats would sprinkle salt and smooth the cabbage so it was level.

Today, it’s pumped into stainless steel vats that can range from 100 tons to most being 900 tons. It’s salted and fermented before it goes into a package, jar or can and then into a cooler or unrefrigerated storage, depending on the product.

“The pump is gentle so it doesn’t harm the product at all,” Downs said, explaining that the system was implemented in 2004, replacing one that required shoveling hundreds of tons of shredded cabbage a day by hand. “It eliminated probably 10 of the most tedious jobs in the plant.”

It also increased productivity by about 30 percent because the product never runs out.

Next Big Thing

GLK has a research and development team dedicated to evaluating and acting quickly on new product ideas.

“We have meetings every two weeks and there’s probably 10 to 12 different projects on the list right now,” said the younger Downs. “The whole idea is to get these ideas out there quickly and try and figure out which ones will work.”

Coming soon is a line of roasted chick peas in several flavors.

“It will deliver the flavor profile of chips, but in a much healthier format,” he said. “The salty snack that people crave, but low in fat or no fat, gluten free, high in fiber, high in protein – we think we have a real opportunity there.”

Justin Gillette, business development manager for Dot Foods, a nationwide food redistributor, said GLK stands out for its innovative approach to product development.

“They do a nice job finding new applications for sauerkraut and niches to get into,” Gillette said, noting that his company’s sales of GLK products have increased about 15 percent annually in the last two years. “They try to think outside of the box – not just be a kraut company, but look for new areas to expand into.”

And the fact that fermented foods are making a comeback in a big way is not lost on GLK either. Earlier this year, sauerkraut was cited for being among the top fermented foods that help establish “a healthy gut” at onegreenplanet.org.

The older Downs recalls a time in the 1970s when there were many more sauerkraut processors in the game, many of them complaining because of a steady decline in sauerkraut sales. That’s not the world he knows now.

“What we’ve done is come up with a lot of different flavors – it’s more artisanal – and of course, fermented foods have become such a popular item,” he said. “We’ve more than stabilized and are on the rebound.”

— Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer