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 in mid-April.


A 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 the business.

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 community.

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.

Entrepreneurial Approach

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 labor issue.

"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, Redfield recalls.

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."

Bottleneck Eliminated

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 time.

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 staff.

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," Anderson said.

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.

Mid-October Process Starts

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 website.


Deborah Nash, MMEC,
Phone: 406-994-3812