A Family Enterprise–Making Healthy Snacks
Karen Getz, owner of the wildly popular Maine Crisp Company in Waterville, is the first to admit that her “food hobbies” tend to rise into full-blown businesses. Over the years, her love of wholesome foods has led her to master artisanal, wood-oven breads, make distinctive homemade cheeses, and create the gluten-free Maine Crisp product line.
Karen grew up just north of Pittsburgh, the youngest of three girls. Her father was an engineer and her mother, a department store manager.
“When I was very young, I can remember my parents gardened and did canning. My mother was a very good baker. My father made homemade beer, and I would put the cap on it.” But it was years later, in California, that Karen said she truly fell in love with good food.
Karen attended business school in Pittsburgh and majored in accounting at Duquesne University, “but I didn’t finish my degree,” she added. She went to work for one of the earliest microbreweries in the nation, owned by a couple who returned to the United States, after two decades in Germany, with their own brew master in tow. A former, shuttered brewery was refurbished into a brewery and German restaurant. “I managed the front of the house. My [future] husband worked upstairs, and he would come down for lunch. . . and then afternoon snacks . . . and then dinner,” she said with a laugh.
Steve Getz, Karen, and their two toddler-aged daughters eventually moved to California for about a year. The many markets there, the fresh food, and especially, the breads, opened Karen up to really good food.
“The company that Steve worked for then got sold to a company on Long Island, so we got shipped back east,” she said. “We moved back to Pittsburgh, and he commuted.” Unable to find the kind of bread they’d come to love in California, “my husband and I built a wood-fired oven. What was nice about it was that we could use it for different things, as well.” The pair mastered cooking everything from a roast chicken to a chocolate soufflé in the oven, and they learned to create a whole rye bread dough, but to bake it off as “more of a sourdough-style bread.”
A friend had given them a copy of The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, by Wendell Berry, which Karen said, “gave us a rosy-colored idea of what farming could be. We were dreaming about farming, driving by farms, reading every farming magazine, attending farming conferences.”
They bought a farm in Vermont. “We raised our daughters on the dairy farm,” Karen said. “Neither one of us had a background in that. When you’ve got to get up and be responsible for this every day, whew! Whose idea was this? I was dumbfounded. You have an animal, and you’re responsible for it, for the grazing land, for milking it, and for turning that milk into a product to sell that people will love.”
“So, once the girls went off to college, we had a heart-to-heart—do we really want to continue? The way we made cheese was extremely difficult and traditional,” Karen explained. “Our cows were 100 percent grass-fed. We would milk them in the morning. I made cheese every day of the week from April through November, when the grass ran out and the snow set in. It was a great way to make cheese, and doing it every day, you come up the learning curve quite fast, but it was exhausting. Both daughters had helped out on the farm, as well.”
The couple also honed their business skills while in Vermont. Karen worked for a food co-op in Middlebury as a manager and buyer, “so I got to evaluate products and bring things in that I thought customers would like,” she said. She gained valuable experience in evaluating packaging, presentation, and flavor.
Steve went to work for the Organic Valley cooperative to which the couple sold milk. He traveled all over New England, and the couple set their sights on Maine. While traveling in Aroostook County for business, “we saw the fields of buckwheat growing at Bouchard Family Farms,” Karen said. “In 2013, we moved to Maine. I knew I wanted to open a specialty food business, making something with buckwheat and blueberries. . . I thought, ‘I’m going to do something gluten-free.’”
Because Steve was on the road so much, Waterville was a nice central location. The business grew slowly, “because it was in my home kitchen for two years,” Karen said. “I could only do so much. It took eight hours to make three cases of crisps, so it wasn’t much of a business. It was a time-consuming hobby! I thought, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to close it or grow it because I can’t keep doing this.’”
Getz opened a storefront, selling baked goods, granola, and coffee to entice customers in to sample the crisps. “We started with wild blueberry and cranberry,” she recalled. “And when I was working on cinnamon maple, I made them try it and give me feedback. It was a nice way to develop the recipe and introduce a new product. People could smell things baking so they’d say, ‘Sure, I’ll try it!’”
Maine Crisps are made with buckwheat from Aroostook County. Despite its name, the high-fiber, high-protein pseudo grain contains no wheat or gluten. As many Maine ingredients as possible are used, “and as much organic as possible, at a price point that works for us,” said Karen.
As production demands grew, the storefront closed. These days, Maine Crisp Company is an all-hands-on-deck operation for the Getz family. Eldest daughter Claire joined the business in 2017 and is the production and quality manager. Steve took on sales and marketing in 2019. Younger daughter Rachel also came on board that year. “It was to be temporary, but she’s still at it,” said Karen. “She was in production for about eight months, but she was an art major, very creative and visual, so now she works on our social media and marketing materials.”
In recent years, the business has acquired a “big slicing machine” that has boosted production from 50 cases a week to 55 cases a day. The Maine Crisp Company has seven employees in addition to the Getz family.
“The crisps are twice-baked,” Karen explained. “They start as small loaves of bread which get sliced and re-baked. It’s that slicing that was the most difficult part. I don’t use any gums to hold for binding, so they want to fall apart. Finding this equipment to slice them without their falling apart was critical.”
Maine Crisp now has products in a direct distribution program with Hannaford, sold at 17 locations in Maine. In October, they got into 44 locations of Whole Foods throughout the north Atlantic region. “We have numerous small independent businesses and some premium retailers like Eataly,” said Karen. “We are in Los Angles, as well, and have a small distribution in San Francisco Bay-area markets. And we are going to be onboarding with UNFI, out of Chesterfield, New Jersey, which will open up a lot of retailers to us—some retailers can’t take direct deliveries.”
Karen remains responsive to customer feedback. “We had a lot of requests for a dairy-free version,” she said. “I use organic nonfat milk powder in the three flavors, but people with celiac disease can’t have dairy, either. So, I took out the milk powder and did a blend of ground walnut flower and buckwheat. The walnut replaced the milk as a protein [necessary to the rising process]. Beans would have worked, too, but I’m a lover of walnuts, and I tend to make what I like to eat.”
Tweaking a new recipe takes time, but what takes nearly as long, she said, is converting those small-batch experiments to production-scale recipes once the right formula is discovered.
“I do have other flavors that I would like to try, and I do have some ideas for other products,” Karen said. “But I haven’t tried them yet. I have to find time. There are always things working in my head. One time, for Valentine’s Day, we did some chocolate crisps for a local pop-up event, and we sold out. I would love to bring those to market. They were just so tasty!”
Currently located at 10 Railroad Square, Waterville, Maine, the Maine Crisp Company expects to close soon on a larger facility “just across the bridge in Winslow,” Karen said. “We have a dedicated baking team now. They do a great job, so we wanted to find something close because we didn’t want to lose any of them. We were fortunate to find this space. We are definitely going to need more employees for that.”
“We’re committed to being here in Maine,” she added. “I feel truly thankful that I get to work with my daughters—and we all get along and still like to see each other!”
To learn more about the Maine Crisp Company, visit www.mainecrisp.com.