Paul Smith and his brother started Great Lakes Chocolate Company in 2002 with a business plan in mind; less than a year later it had changed significantly. "It became quickly obvious that chocolate was a seasonal item - at least this type of chocolate" says Paul “…we decided to add coffee." After opening in April, by December of 2002 the brothers were operating Great Lakes Chocolate and Coffee Company; quickly learning lessons and remaining flexible on a path to success.
Before getting into coffee and chocolate, the Smith brothers started their entrepreneurial path in the construction business.
Great Lakes began as a chocolate sales kiosk in Battle Creek, MI but quickly established a home base in Sturgis following the addition of coffee sales to the business. Their remodeled location at 100 W. Chicago Road opened in February of 2003 and has remained a successful part of the community since.
Today Great Lakes is a very different operation than Paul and his brother intended to start; "the chocolate is about ten percent of our business, the coffee is ninety percent of our business." That ratio meant learning lessons about what was selling, when it was selling and adjusting accordingly. "We used to have over 100 different chocolate offerings" says Paul "but that was an inventory nightmare ... we narrowed it down to the most popular."
They also expanded their operations on the coffee side, adding coffee roasting in 2004. This was both a convenience and cost-savings measure, moving from an outside supplier to an in-house service. It further allowed the business to sell their own coffee, not only retail in their stores, but also wholesale toplaces like Trine University, which uses Great Lakes coffee in their cafeteria and campus cafe.
Evolution and expansion was not just in the products, but also at their locations. Over the years Great Lakes has expanded to communities outside of Sturgis, currently operating locations in Kendallville, Angola, and Auburn Indiana. Their most recent expansion is back home, opening a second Sturgis location inside the new Meijer coming to town. "We're very excited" says Smith. "I thought it was going to be a little more difficult and a little more expensive, and in fact it was affordable and ... relatively painless." The partnership appears to be a positive one, as Great Lakes and Meijer are discussing the possibility of future joint locations in addition to Sturgis.
Further expansion for Great Lakes is coming online. While they currently have online ordering, they are starting to revamp their digital presence and make "more of a push" with internet sales. Online chocolate sales are seasonal (October through April), with coffee sales year-around. They are launching a new website, as well as an effort to link up with bigger online stores.
With fourteen years of evolution and business growth, Paul Smith has many lessons to share with entrepreneurs. "Sales doesn't equal profit." Be realistic with the numbers." "Get an accountant, get an attorney, and make sure your t's are crossed and i's are dotted." "Be prepared to work very hard." These are just a few snippets of lessons learned along the way. Perhaps one of the most important, however, relates to customer service. "The coffee and the chocolate are the products" says Smith, but the goal of the business is to sell an experience: "we are trying to create an environment where the customer is number one and the customer knows that to be the case ... that is what Great Lakes is really all about."