Take Your Food Assortment to the Next Level

KeHE’s mission to serve and feed America is fueled by an obsession with natural and organic, specialty and fresh products.

January 03, 2023

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—NACS Magazine recently spoke with Amy Kirtland, executive vice president, innovation and growth, at KeHE Distributors LLC, about better-for-you products and trends and how KeHE provides the latest for its customers.

Q: The better-for-you products category used to be seen as niche but is now mainstream. KeHE has focused on natural, organic, specialty and fresh products since 1953. How have you seen it change?

Like most growing product areas, the proliferation of new items with a wide range of benefits and claims can cause retailer and consumer confusion. What products are truly natural, organic and regenerative? What are the real benefits for consumers? Which products are performing best, and what are the most promising new products? KeHE, as a leader within the Natural, Organic & Fresh industry, has the expertise to filter through the thousands of items and claims to provide the best possible mix, customized to a retailer’s format and consumer base, and the necessary infrastructure to get the products to retailers.

Traditional convenience distributors and wholesalers typically have high levels of expertise in the conventional categories, but there are more complexities and minimum volume requirements in the natural, specialty and fresh space. KeHE has innovated to offer flexible distribution options, including smaller order direct drop-ship capabilities and partnerships with distributors, in addition to our direct service capabilities to service convenience customers with a much wider assortment of products.

Q: Not only are consumer tastes changing but also where they purchase their food is changing. There has been rapid growth in food sales in convenience stores and dollar stores, for example. Can you share some insights into this space?

Consumers are mobile again and less tied to traditional home-to-office lifestyles. They snack throughout the day and are seeking quick, smaller format stores to grab the items they need versus the larger planned shops of a few years ago. They are also looking for new products to try in these venues, making innovation and new items critical to success. Fresh has been a major growth area across all formats, so curating convenient grab-and-go fresh items has been a focus for KeHE.

KeHE has served convenience formats for many years and is expanding our reach by partnering with new formats like Air Guitar and industry thought leaders like Kum & Go to identify the best selection of products to meet their consumers’ needs across categories. These partnerships are highly complementary as KeHE drives innovation and category growth for our retail partners and gains new avenues to bring our products to market. We have an incredible inventory that is accessible to 95% of the U.S. population, and we want to ensure that we continuously offer them interesting and healthy alternatives, regardless of where or how they shop.

Q: Knowing that trends often move from the grocery space into the convenience channel, what trends are you seeing making an impact now, and which ones should retailers be on the lookout for?

Key convenience categories have their own unique dynamics when it comes to consumer trends. KeHE’s Growth Solutions team targets the special needs of each format in the segments in which they compete. Based on KeHE’s insights, we expect that several key trends will likely continue, such as high-end fresh-baked items (nuts, flavors), healthy snacking (bars and hummus) and easy entertainment (charcuterie boards). New growth will be fueled by the types of products KeHE has added to our assortment based on trends like:

  • Alcohol-free/low-alcohol beverages are gaining traction. New functionality beverages like collagen and gut health, sustainable and plant-based packaging, along with unique flavors are also trending.
  • Plant-based salty snacks will expand into new areas like hemp, legumes and cauliflower, as well as high-protein alternatives.
  • Confections that use botanicals and brands that are socially and environmentally responsible.
  • High protein and healthy fats, low carb, and low sugar (keto) bars will continue to innovate, along with fresher and refrigerated ingredients and multipack stock-up options.
  • Ethical and clean ingredients in meat snacks will grow, and we will see new plant-based mushroom and soy alternatives.
Q: How do you discover and source emerging brands/products?

KeHE has dedicated Category Management and Growth Solutions teams that not only identify market trends but also proactively source new products that address evolving consumer cravings. KeHE continuously analyzes the data on over 63,000 items we currently carry and onboarded 18,000 new items last year through several unique programs. These include:
  • KeHE TREND finder™ events where hundreds of products apply, but a select few are chosen as the best to carry and promote to our customers
  • Attending farmer’s markets across the country to identify new products and emerging trends
  • Our KeHE elevate™ program that helps innovative new products gain marketplace traction
  • KeHE also partners with RangeMe to review new product submissions and run supplemental social media campaigns for specific category needs
  • KeHE strives to be the best provider of product innovation in our industry.

Q: How does KEHE exemplify its mission to serve to make lives better and be a next-generation distributor throughout all aspects of its operation?

KeHE believes that we can use our success to be a force for good, improving the lives of our employees, communities and the planet. This makes KeHE unique in many ways. KeHE is employee-owned, so our people succeed when we do. We are a certified B Corp, voluntarily meeting higher standards for quality and transparency. KeHE also directs 10% of net profits to our KeHE Cares Foundation to support our employees, communities and those around the globe in need.

Our sales force is consistently recognized for its outstanding responsiveness and customer service. KeHE also hosts several award-winning trade shows each year to share exciting new products and innovations with our retail partners. Operationally, we continuously advance our ordering and logistics capabilities to meet the needs of our customers. We opened two state-of-the-art distribution facilities in Dallas, Texas, and Goodyear, Arizona. We also launched KeHE CONNECT Direct™ to make our entire product assortment available to our customers and better respond to smaller shipment needs.

At KeHE, we say, Where KeHE Goes, Goodness Follows.® See what KeHE can do for your business.

This Q&A with Amy Kirtland, executive vice president, innovation and growth, KeHE Distributors LLC, appears in the January 2023 issue of NACS Magazine.