Creativity and Automation at Lefse Shack Solving
Worker Shortage in Opheim
Granrud's Lefse Shack has been an important business
in the northeastern Montana community of Opheim since its start
in 1977. The company manufactures lefse, Norwegian potato bread
similar in appearance to a tortilla and a favorite treat when served
with butter and sugar. Today, the product is growing in popularity
as a wrap as well. Granrud's Lefse is sold in all 50 states.
The operation is ideal for a rural farm and ranch
community. The plant opens at the end of the harvest season, runs
four-day, nine-hour shifts and finishes up operations just when
spring planting, branding and home gardens need attention starting
shortage of available workers in Opheim (population est. 85) for
the labor-intensive business is the result of a declining population,
a phenomenon that is occurring in communities all across the rural
West. Granrud's current owners Twyla Anderson and Alice Redfield
are trying creative solutions to overcome this shortage and grow
They purchased it in 2005 from Northern Electric,
which had purchased it in 1995 from original owners Evan and Myrt
Granrud with the intent of keeping employment opportunities in the
A Perfect Match
"We are a perfect match because Alice has worked at The Shack
for 21 years and knew everything about the production side. I knew
the front office and financials," Anderson said. She joined
the company in 1999.
"Before we bought the business, we worked
with 'The Electric' to see if it was feasible to build a new production
building," she said. The business has operated in the garage
of a house known as "The Shack" since the beginning, with
occasional add-ons by Evan.
MMEC Field Engineer Dale Detrick helped with
the feasibility process, designing a new layout; looking at how
to make the manufacturing process flow better and become more efficient.
Jim Haider, now MMEC's field engineer for the 32 county WIRED region,
also worked on the project as a private consultant.
"It took a lot of time and energy,
but in the end the new facility turned out to be too expensive,"
Anderson explained. "We just couldn't make it work."
"If we hadn't gone through the process,
we'd still be thinking we could build," Anderson said. "It's
really the declining population that will keep us from doing it."
Co-owner Redfield said the cost for a new building
took them by surprise, at an estimated $600,000. "That's a
huge amount of debt to carry. Our first reaction was resignation."
That soon changed.
Anderson and Redfield have taken an entrepreneurial approach, setting
about improving productivity and increasing sales. They continued
to work with the Manufacturing Center to explore solutions to the
"We sell nationwide and sell everything
we make. Now our efforts are put into fine tuning the best that
we can to be as efficient as possible," Anderson said.
"The isolation we experience here in Montana
is the very driving force that makes our people so creative,"
Detrick contends. "Granrud's is a perfect example."
He has continued to work with Granrud's owners
for several years to build in efficiencies as part of his service
to companies across the entire eastern half of Montana.
Anderson and Redfield are applying the same creative
energy to issues that started the "BIG idea" 30 years
ago to make lefse in commercial quantities from tiny Opheim. With
no production equipment to launch the business, Evan Granrud designed
the rolling machines and other needed equipment. Myrt worked out
the perfect recipe that would achieve the "just like Grandma
used to make" quality. The couple were surprised at the demand
for their product, and may have felt a bit overwhelmed by it all,
Evan's machines are still in use today. "They
are basic but complex enough so they are hard to copy," Anderson
said. "Most of the equipment in the lefse room was invented
by Evan: the tube stuffers, frying grills, cooling conveyer."
In early explorations for improvements, Detrick and the new owners
identified a production bottleneck with the mechanical rolling machines.
Daily output was limited by their output, using a process that required
a person to run each machine and advance it manually when a piece
of lefse was rolled to the "perfect" size. Four machines
required four workers, and quality and uniformity were affected
when fatigue or distractions occurred.
On Detrick's advice, a pair of machines was automated
several years ago using programmable logic controls (PLCs) to automatically
roll out a piece of lefse to the right size, eliminating the use
of a foot pedal and using a computer eye to sense when the lefse
rotated. Kurt Breigenzer from KB Consulting out of Glasgow, was
hired for the automation upgrade.
"He and a partner had to work on a trial
and error basis as there is nothing like it anywhere," Anderson
said. "We didn't know if it would work, but went ahead over
the summer break. Kurt is a really smart guy, and the result couldn't
have been more perfect."
Breigenzer was impressed with the machine design. "These are
amazing machines, as is the fact that he [Evan] did it, managing
all the different movements that had to be done to roll a piece
out evenly, using a very simple design. It worked and worked well."
Breigenzer's big challenge was how to write a
program for the computer PLC - "I had to learn it from scratch."
Once this automation was proven out, the owners
(Alice and Twyla) decided to automate the remaining machines when
time allowed. This would enable one person to load two rolling machines,
cutting the labor requirement for this production step from four
to two. It also sped up the process by standardizing the rolling
WIRED Grant Helps
with Training Manual
"For this project, WIRED training dollars were used to produce
a training manual for the machines and train workers on their operation
and maintenance, adding critical documentation on how to do programming
changes in the software if needed," Haider explained. Because
Breigenzer had done the design and installation of the automated
upgrades, he was the natural choice to write the manual and train
The owners are very pleased with the results,
and the manual will help keep the rolling machines functioning without
waiting for outside assistance if adjustments are needed.
"Since automating the machines, we haven't
needed two more workers we could not get, and it has made the process
faster, increasing our production -- so a win-win in every way,"
Production is up from 500 packages a day to 575.
Many days they get 600 packages or more. "That was unheard
of three or four years ago," she added.
Not all the changes have been so complex. "Even
simple things have made a difference. For instance, twist ties have
been eliminated; now they use a heat sealer.
"The MMEC staff has really been good to
work with," added Redfield. "We have received lots of
help and ideas from them. They are very interested in our business
and wanted us to succeed."
The changes have really made a difference. Productivity
has increased by 25 percent, "and that's a lot in a labor intensive
business," Anderson said.
Coupled with a marketing project with marketing
and design specialist Rick Bakko to improve the website and update
package branding, the changes have improved profits, enabling a
boost in wages by 20 percent, "and bonuses are certainly better
than they were," Anderson said.
Starting in mid-October, Granrud's receives 60,000 lbs. of potatoes,
using 1,000 lbs. a day. The recipe calls for both reds and whites
that come from dryland farms around Williston, N.D, so they aren't
too moist. Near the end of the season potatoes are purchased from
the local grocer, using about 90,000 lbs. through the season to
produce 47,000 one-pound packages of lefse.
Granrud's crew is like family; they have fun
and work hard. "Without them we wouldn't have anything; they
really care about the product," Anderson said.
A detailed chronicle of just what is involved
in making Granrud's famous lefse can be viewed on the Granrud's
Deborah Nash, MMEC,