BY GLENN PUIT
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Mike Busley remembers what it was like to work in a world of corporate downsizing.
Busley, co-founder of Grand Traverse Pie Company, labored for defense contractors General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin in Southern California for 16 years. He watched in the 1990s as budget cuts claimed the jobs of thousands of his co-workers.
“They laid off people, transferred people, closed buildings, sold real estate,” Busley said.
The turmoil prompted Busley to consider a different career path with his wife, Denise.
“I didn’t feel real passionate about (my job,)” Busley said. “I didn’t feel real good going to work every day when I kept wondering, ‘Is your number going to be called?’”
Denise Busley also was disenchanted with her career in medical sales in Southern California. The Michigan natives talked about returning to start their own small business, a notion that led to the formation of Grand Traverse Pie Company.
“I literally thought we would come to Traverse City, we would make maybe 50 pies a day, hopefully sell them, eke out a living and go kayaking with the kids,” Denise Busley said.
The beginnings of the business were carefully planned. The Busleys modeled their pie effort after a small pie shop in Julian, Calif., that they’d visited on vacation. The owner of that shop spent weeks training the Busleys on making pies and running a customer-friendly business.
Mike Busley became “the oven guy.” Denise Busley focused on welcoming customers.
“I used to be known as the pie lady,” Denise said. “We’d take the kids to the movies or a function at school and people would ask, ‘Aren’t you the pie lady?’ No one really knew my name.”
The couple’s years of labor paid off. The business expanded significantly over the last 17 years, with 15 shops now open. Fourteen of those outlets are in Michigan. Last year the company welcomed 2.5 million customers.
Mike Busley said an important component of survival in the early years was utilizing a business model that didn’t just rely on Traverse City’s summer retail season for sustenance. Instead, the couple baked pies for distribution to other shops and markets outside Traverse City.
“We baked about 700 to 800 pies on a Wednesday, boxed them up, load them in a trailer or van and drive them to Detroit on Thursday and deliver there,” Mike Busley said.
The Busleys said they’ve focused on quality, customer service, using locally grown products and hiring good people. There’s not much consideration of expanding outside of the state because there are still growth opportunities here.
“We feel like Michigan is our wheelhouse,” he said. “We are not in the U.P. We are not in the resurgence of Detroit. We only have one shop in Grand Rapids. We are not in Holland yet. We only have three in the greater Detroit area, so we feel like there’s opportunity.”
Denise Busley said business success allowed her to head in a slightly different direction. She now spends much of her time advocating for northern Michigan children, including foster kids. She’s a tireless advocate for protecting children from abuse.
“It’s in my heart,” Denise Busley said. “We are all connected. Our society, our town, our world is only going to be as strong as our children. It will never be better than how we treat our children.”