DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — Type the phrase, “Grubbersputz” into an online German-to-English dictionary and you get the confusing translation of “cultivator plaster.”
But to Gary Senger, founder of Green Valley Foods, a “grubbersputz” was what you called someone who turned into a comedian after a couple of beers in the bar.
And, in 2016, when Senger decided to create a line of flavored popcorns, it seemed like the perfect name for his new brand.
“It’s funny how many people try to say it, but they’re always wrong,” says Melanie Wahl, the chief operating officer of Green Valley Foods, which produces the Grubbersputz's product lines from a converted strip mall in Devils Lake.
Today, the hard-to-pronounce-but-harder-to-forget name graces the flavored popcorns, pretzels and frozen pizzas that are sold by the Grubbersputz's sales staff — Senger’s grown sons, Mat, Jason and Tyler — to outlets throughout North Dakota, eastern Montana and western Minnesota, Wahl says.
Wahl is technically COO, but she is really a jill of all trades, wrapping pallets to ship out to distributors one day and drafting checks and invoices the next. This week, she’s also a media spokesperson, filling in for her publicity-shy boss.
“Gary is such a humble person, so getting him to admit to all that he has accomplished with his and his family’s hard work is tough,” says Wahl.
But she insists Senger really is the brains and heart of the operation. “He really is the innovative one. As soon as I think he’s done it all, he throws another idea out there.”
Senger has been in food sales since age 24, when he started selling Tombstone Pizzas off the truck. In 1988, he launched Pugsley’s, the ubiquitous sandwich line found at convenience stores around the region. He sold the company in 2008 to Deli Express, a national chain, then started Green Valley Foods four years later, operating out of City Plaza (the old Walmart in Devils Lake).
In 2016, he introduced the Grubbersputz's brand of flavored popcorn. The popcorn really is made "from kernel to bag" locally, and sells for $5 to $6 per package. It's available in 10 flavors, including sweet-salty Kettlecorn, White Cheddar, Spicy Ranch, Cheddar-Caramel, Dill Pickle, Butterscotch and their best-selling Caramel Explosion.
“What I really like about our popcorn is that it’s not break-your-teeth kind of crunchy,” Wahl says. “Other caramel corns are sticky, but this doesn’t stick to your teeth so that your jaws are clamped shut. It still has that nice popcorn crunch, but it’s the perfect combination of sweetness and softness.”
In 2018, Senger expanded the product line with pretzels — called GrubberSputzels — in flavors such as dill pickle, cinnamon and sugar, ranch and "fire hazard."
All the while, Senger longed to get back to creating the food that launched his career: pizza. In April of 2020, he bought the building at 1509 Highway 20 S., the same site where Pugsley's sandwiches were once made. The new 15,000-square-foot building provided enough space for manufacturing pizza. By July of that year, the first Grubbersputz's pizzas were rolling off the assembly line.
Even so, it took countless hours of recipe development and taste-testing beforehand to get them there. Senger was frequently found in the test kitchen, sampling pizzas ordered from other companies, asking for feedback from staff and analyzing how he could improve on what’s already out there.
“By July, I got really sick of eating pizza,” Wahl says, laughing. “I never thought I would say that.”
Regular-crust and ultra-thin-crust Grubbersputz's pizzas are found on bar menus around the region, available in varieties such as the Four-Meater (pepperoni, Canadian bacon, sausage and bacon), Chicken Alfredo, Hog Unit (barbecue sauce, mozzarella cheese, Canadian bacon, bacon and jalapenos) and Three Pepper (pepperoni, jalapenos, banana peppers and pepperoncinis).
One of their most popular items is a breakfast pizza, loaded with scrambled eggs, pork sausage, Canadian bacon, bacon and cheese sauce, Wahl says.
She says the pizzas stand out from the competition not only due to Senger’s innovative twist on ingredients, but also due to quality. The CEO sources only U.S.-raised and processed meats, buys cheese from Burnett Dairy in Wisconsin and makes the sauce from scratch.
“He really likes picking the best of the best ingredients,” Wahl says. “He will 100% pick quality over price, every single time.”
The new pizza line, along with private-label manufacturing they did for another company, kept the staff of 16 busy, even amid the pandemic, Wahl says.
That included Senger’s all-in-the-family sales reps, who jump in their trucks at the beginning of the week to cover a territory that spans from I-94 to the Canadian border, and from eastern Montana to Alexandria. The three Sengers then return Friday to sit around a table, talk sales and swap stories. Lately, Gary Senger has also started hitting the road — revisiting the type of work he did in his 20s, but this time around, able to sell a product he created himself.
“It’s fun to see the whole family sitting there at the end of the day, sharing their successes,” Wahl says. “They all love it.”
To learn more about Grubbersputz's products or to order, visit www.grubbersputzs.com.