How we started

You might know the story of the Grand Traverse Pie Company – Mike and Denise Busley, in the mid-1990s, approaching their 40s, living in San Diego. Had two young kids, a beautiful home, successful careers in the defense industry and medical sales. Living the dream, right?

No. Something was missing, says Mike. Inner satisfaction. Purpose. Passion.

That all changed the day the Busley family wandered into Julian Pie Co. in Julian, California, and – struck by the cozy, warm shop and thriving business – started dreaming of a pie business of their own.

Actually, no. Correction. That all changed the day Mike Busley walked back into Julian Pie Company with a business plan and asked the owner to teach them everything she knew … and she said yes.

“We’d never owned a business, never been in the food business, never even made a pie,” says Mike Busley.

Not only did Liz Smothers say yes, over the course of several weeks, she trained the couple in every task in her shop. She even gave them her famous apple pie recipe.

And when the Busleys quit their jobs, packed up their family and risked everything they had to open their own pie company in Traverse City, Smothers came out to TC for three weeks to help them set up. (Not coincidentally, the kitchen layout of the original GT Pie Co. store on West Front Street mirrors one of Smothers’ shop kitchens.)

What would possess the owner of a successful business, with two shops of her own and pies sold all around the country, to take on two novices with a dream, give them her recipes, her trade secrets and techniques – and not view them as a threat? Or at the very least, charge them a hefty franchise fee?

“I don’t know,” says Smothers, now 74 years old and still at the helm of the Julian Pie Company. “I had a good feeling about them.”

Smothers was in TC yesterday. On a round-the-Great Lakes road trip to a class reunion in Kansas with her sister-in-law and a girlfriend, she paid a visit to the Busleys’ second pie shop in TC – the couple’s 17th GT Pie Co. shop in the Midwest.

“I’m so proud of Mike and Denise,” she says, looking around the bustling Park St. eatery and beaming. “I’m telling you, it’s just been a wonderful relationship over the years.”

Though Smothers has been back to TC only a handful of times since helping the Busleys begin, she says they keep in close touch: “I’ll call to pick Mike’s brain about this or that, he does the same. We lean on each other.”

Looking back, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Oh, it was fun,” she says. “I loved it. Nothing more fun than making a living at what you want to do.”

Nothing, maybe, except helping somebody else do the same.

This story was written by Lynda Twardowski Wheatley for the The Ticker in October 2011.