Did you know that 90 percent of the sauerkraut sold in North America is produced by a Badger-run, Wisconsin-based company?
Ryan Downs ’02 is a man of tradition. He attended the UW because his grandparents, father, and siblings did before him. He makes the trek from Appleton, Wisconsin, each Game Day with his three young daughters because that’s what his father did when he was young. And he’s the owner of GLK Foods — a company that’s been in his family since 1900.
GLK Foods, with its offices and production plant based in Wisconsin’s Outagamie County, had humble beginnings. It started with Downs’s great-grandfather Dave Flanagan and brother Henry who grew, harvested, and sold cabbage. “They would send it on railcar from our Bear Creek facility — on large blocks of ice — down to Chicago for produce markets,” says Downs. One particularly fruitful year resulted in an overage of cabbage, which Flanagan Brothers decided to make last longer by turning into sauerkraut. Downs laughs, “All you do is cut it up and add salt!” Now the company produces 90 percent of the sauerkraut sold in North America, and it also boasts several other product lines, including their newest Oh Snap! brand of pickles and veggie snacks.
“What I’d like to see hopefully evolve a little bit is … to make sure that we keep those people here so that the whole university system is in support of the state of Wisconsin. It’s about giving back to the state that gave you an incredible experience.”
When Downs enrolled at UW–Madison, he didn’t necessarily think he’d end up with the corner office in the family business. “I majored in poli sci because I kind of thought I’d go to law school.” He didn’t. Instead, upon graduation, he and his wife, Marissa Behrens ’01, moved to New York City to work for a software company. But it was only a few years before the family ties drew them back to Appleton. “The older I get, the more important it is to me that I’m here,” says Downs, “and the prouder of it I become. I [want to] prove what Wisconsin is capable of.”
Downs’s office is stylishly decorated with Badger items — a Badger football helmet, an old photo of Bucky in the shape of Wisconsin, a framed poster of Bascom Hall. In running GLK Foods, he works to keep his business connected to the great minds at UW–Madison. “We’re working on a project right now where kraut brine is mixed in with dairy-cow feed,” Downs explains. Researchers at the UW are studying how the brine — when used instead of water with silage — can increase milk output in dairy cows and provide probiotic benefits.
As most things do with Downs, everything goes back to his family. “This was always my dad’s line: ‘If you go to the University of Wisconsin, you can do anything in the world.’ ” But Downs hopes to see more UW graduates stay in Wisconsin. “What I’d like to see hopefully evolve a little bit is … to make sure that we keep those people here so that the whole university system is in support of the state of Wisconsin,” he says. “It’s about giving back to the state that gave you an incredible experience.”