GLK Foods LLC: A Distinctively Modern Take on an Old Favorite

GLK Foods Inc. (GLK) is the world’s largest sauerkraut producer, as well as a true market leader and innovator. The company – which maintains production facilities in Bear Creek, Wis., and Shortsville, N.Y. – has operated for more than a century in the sauerkraut business, evolving with technology without forgetting that quality and flavor come first and foremost.

As Ryan Downs, president and fourth-generation owner of GLK, explains, “It’s critical that we have the most modern techniques in terms of manufacturing sauerkraut. We’re able to make it faster, cheaper and better. By being the best, we were able to roll up the entire industry. That’s what makes us different in sauerkraut.” Downs is referring to the period throughout the 1990s and early 2000s when GLK purchased many of its competitors, rolling their operations and sales into GLK’s business. Even after all this consolidation, GLK remains a proud family-run business, committed to delivering Old World tastes through the efficiency of modern logistics.

The Path to Success

Though now fully modernized and diversified, GLK began in 1900 as a simple pickling company called Flanagan Brothers, which eventually evolved into the Great Lakes Kraut Company LLC in 1997. The company adopted its current abbreviated name in 2010 to reflect its commitment to producing healthy foods beyond just sauerkraut. To facilitate this mission GLK currently employs 172 full-time employees and 206 temporary and seasonal employees (employment levels reach their peak in the fall during the cabbage-harvesting season).

GLK truly has a hand in every step of production, including cabbage farming, canning and jarring. Downs explains that the company grows about half of its cabbage on farmland owned by GLK, while the other half is grown by contract growers in upstate New York and Wisconsin. The cabbage is processed in coring machines in both of the company’s facilities. While GLK’s coring machines and trimming stations are manned, the rest of the firm’s equipment is “almost 100-percent automated, quite streamlined and quite modern,” notes Downs.

A Necessary Innovation

One of GLK’s greatest challenges came in 2010 and led to an important innovation that became a real source of pride for the company. That year brought a total wipe out of the cabbage crop on a scale that had not occurred since 1993, before GLK represented as much of the sauerkraut market as it does today. The company’s practice following crop shortages was typically to procure cabbage from Eastern Europe, but that region had also experienced a major shortage.

So GLK began raising cabbage crops in the off-season in Texas and Florida and quickly put together a mobile cutting unit comprised of flatbed trailers with coring machines – a true “mobile kraut plant,” as Downs puts it, adding, “We were running the largest kraut plant in the world, and it was on wheels.”

Downs further explains that shipping whole cabbage heads to the company facilities in Wisconsin and New York would have been inefficient, as that would have involved essentially shipping waste since only 60 percent of a head of cabbage winds up as sauerkraut. Downs remarks, “It was a dark time for the company. We’re very proud of our response.” He notes that while the mobile kraut plant came at a high cost, it was crucial for GLK in terms of preserving the market for its product.

Downs explains why GLK’s remarkable innovation was necessary, noting that grocery stores carry sauerkraut with a mentality akin to “‘… if my competitor has it, I will carry it, too, because I don’t want that product to be the one reason for a consumer to go elsewhere.’” The company’s fear during the crop shortage of 2010 was that retailers as a group might leave sauerkraut off of their shelves indefinitely. Downs reflects, “We did not want to give retailers that opportunity. No matter the cost, we would make sure there was a supply of sauerkraut. We never shorted an order; sauerkraut never left retailers’ shelves. That’s something we’re very proud of.”

Not Your Father’s Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut remains GLK’s signature product, but the company is bringing that old standby into the modern age with recent marketing strategies. One of these, called “Kraut Rocks,” involved a partnership with celebrity chef and former “Top Chef” competitor Spike Mendolsohn, who owns several restaurants in Washington, D.C. For this initiative, Mendolsohn and other chefs featured sauerkraut in various items on their menus, and patrons voted on their smartphones for their favorite kraut dishes. “It’s gotten people looking at and talking about sauerkraut in a different way and not using it in a traditional fashion,” reflects Downs.

The company has also undertaken a new marketing campaign featuring the tagline “Change Your Krautlook” to highlight the health benefits that sauerkraut has to offer as a super food. Downs notes that the recent Fancy Food Show in San Francisco featured a number of fermented vegetable items, which are among top food trends for the year. He observes, “There’s something clearly going on; people are returning to simpler foods. People are giving sauerkraut a second look, and we’re capitalizing on that.”

In addition to continuing its leadership in the sauerkraut market, GLK has branched out into the production of other specialty refrigerated foods. Citing the company’s “robust new product development process,” Downs notes that GLK has recently unveiled its Verdi line of products, which includes high-end Italian olives and Pachino tomatoes from southeastern Sicily, both of which have immediate success through retailers such as Costco. Downs notes that the success of these new additions to the company’s offerings has been measurable both in terms of their popularity with customers and due to the fact that they can be shipped on the same refrigerated trucks as GLK’s sauerkraut products, driving down costs for the company.

Assessing the company’s strengths and vision for the future, Downs notes, “We have an excellent base and platform for distribution. Our products are in every grocery store in the country. We always consider the needs of the retailers and what niches we can explore. We’re not just sauerkraut anymore … if we call ourselves the market leader, we have to lead.”
GLK Foods Inc. is doing just that, and with its new product line and new twists on an industry standard, the company is poised to continue its leadership role well into the future.