The Upper Lakes Foods Story
The Twin Ports is the ideal soil to grow a family and grow a business. The bustling economy and close communities inspire ambition and foster a spirit of hard work and commitment. Lawrence and Patricia Sorenson saw the potential. A food broker living in Superior, Lawrence decided to become a food distributor and created Upper Lakes Foods in 1967. With five employees, one truck, and a building in Duluth, the business was planted.
“There is no doubt that he was one of the hardest working people to walk around,” says COO Jim Bradshaw.
With the Sorensons’ hard work, Upper Lakes Foods grew to become a full-service broad-line food distributor that has about 245 employees and $182 million in sales annually. Originally serving restaurants and a business that supplied food to Duluth’s shipping industry, they now deal with everyone from schools, restaurants, and health care facilities to prisons, camps, and delis. They also serve a wide area including northwestern Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, all of Minnesota, and part of North Dakota. As an independent distributor, Upper Lakes Foods is a member of the co-op Unipro, which purchases more food than any entity in North America.
Like any great tree that roots itself in the Twin Ports area, Upper Lakes Foods faced struggles. They originally occupied a few floors of a building in Duluth that was remembered for having a rickety elevator. In 1981, the state of Minnesota took their building for freeway extensions and the Sorenson family and their 60 employees were forced to relocate their budding business in less than sixty days.
Thankfully, they found a ready-to-move-into building on Industry Avenue in Cloquet where they currently reside. Despite the struggles the company faced in making the transition, the move provided a more efficient building (no rickety elevator) and a new community in which to grow and serve.
Upper Lakes Foods experienced another trial during the economic storms of the recession. Though they struggled and were set back from their previous success, they weathered the storm and are continuing to grow. As proof, in 2008 they established a facility in Northfield, WI, in order to better accommodate three of their major customers.
Though the founder has since passed on and his wife retired, family is still a big part of the business as his two sons and daughter, President Sue Ryan (Sorenson), work in the company. The Sorensons have kept Upper Lakes Foods in the family for almost 45 years and, though they’ve been approached by other companies, they have had no desire to sell. Family is the business and Ryan says that the employees are a part of that family.
“We have a very good group of employees that we believe in and we want to keep their families thriving by giving them a place to come to work every day,” Ryan says.
Upper Lakes Foods provides more to its customers than just food distribution. Their goal is to enhance the profitability of the people they serve. For those interested in the restaurant business, they offer analysis, design work, assistance in organizing finances, menu work, and training. They offer an open ear to manufacturers and pride themselves in their personalized service, which entails getting to know each customer and then providing what serves that customer best.
“At the end of the day it’s all about service,” says Bradshaw.
Upper Lakes Foods is changing with the times by investing in social media, supporting new product lines, and seeking to draw from local resources. Looking toward the future, Ryan and Bradshaw agree that it is important to adapt to technological and cultural changes as they anticipate further growth. However, through it all, Ryan points out that at the root of the company is people—and most importantly family.
“Our group of employees is not only employees but family and they are proud to be distributors,” says Ryan. “It is important for us to do a good job with our customers because we could not continue to grow without them.”