Along with transporting fresh food and groceries, and supplying and supporting retailer customers, United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) is leveraging the scale of its distribution network to help emerging brands grow.
The Providence, Rhode Island-based UNFI—North America’s largest publicly traded grocery distributor—said its supply chain network and array of vendor support services and resources are enabling brands to accelerate speed to market, extend their reach to consumers, diversify their customer base and enter new markets.
Overall, the company operates 56 distribution centers and supplies more than 30,000 retailers in the United States and Canada, including natural product superstores, independent retailers, conventional supermarket chains, e-commerce retailers and foodservice providers. Its 30 million square feet of warehouse space helped drive more than 1.8 million deliveries in fiscal 2022.
“UNFI works with some of the most dynamic and innovative local, regional and national grocers in North America, which presents a tremendous brand-positioning opportunity,” according to John Raiche, executive vice president of supplier services. “Emerging brands can take advantage of UNFI’s account managers and sales team, who have built long-term relationships with our customers, bringing them tailored programs, solutions, and enhanced value-added insights to strengthen suppliers’ marketing and merchandising efforts.”
When new suppliers approach UNFI about distribution, one of the options they’re presented with is UpNext, a program that caters to emerging brands. UpNext suppliers are selected through a rigorous review process aimed at finding brands geared toward growth and geographic expansion, UNFI said.
For example, nutrition company Evive—a maker of plant-based, gluten-free smoothies to boost consumers’ morning routines—had established its brand throughout Canada (including via financial support from “Dragons’ Den,” a reality television program similar to “Shark Tank”). Now the company, founded in 2015, wanted to expand into the United States. To that end, Evive tapped UNFI’s UpNext program to gain the resources, insights, and hands-on relationship to introduce the brand and products to natural, conventional and independent retailers.
Two years into the program, Evive has products in 13 UNFI distribution centers across its four regions and is slated to graduate from UpNext later this year.
“In addition to being amazing, the UpNext program gave us the information and attention to be immediately successful in the United States,” Cristina Peters-Domenech, vice president of U.S. sales at Evive, said in a statement. “UNFI’s infrastructure, retailer relationships and ability to get our product into consumers hands quickly will serve our go-forward strategy well as we continue on our growth path and deepen our support for the retailers we service.”
Not all growth brands begin their relationship with UNFI via UpNext, the distributor noted. Children’s nutrition company Once Upon a Farm, for instance, disrupted the baby food category by creating the first cold-pressed baby food sold at retail. And soon after that, the company tackled the children’s snacking space with a range of organic, cold-pressed fruit and veggie blends, dairy-free smoothies, and frozen, plant-rich meals.
Once Upon a Farm’s collaboration with UNFI generated brand life-cycle expansion by “aging-up” with new food products for older children. Although that brought the brand additional sales channels, it also meant developing relationships with retail buyers in multiple departments.
“Our goal is to create an environment where a child can eat nutritiously from their very first bite and help them develop a life-long preference for fresh food,” explained Elliot Mason, senior team director of grocery sales at Once Upon a Farm. “With different store buyers across every grocery department, UNFI helps serve as a conduit for us, creating a frictionless process for selling into multiple categories. UNFI has been an essential distribution partner for our brand, helping us grow not just in the natural channel, but in the conventional grocery space as well.”
Of course, trade shows help up-and-coming brands get exposure to a critical mass of retailers. UNFI said frozen pizza startup Talia Di Napoli attended its first UNFI selling show in February 2022 in Orlando, Florida. Founded in 2018 by current Neapolitans, Talia di Napoli makes a variety of frozen pizza varieties—handmade in Italy by master pizzaiolos—using traditional methods and local, all-natural ingredients.
Since Talia di Napoli’s first UNFI show, CEO Edouard Freda has been introduced to hundreds of UNFI independent retailers and cites these connections as having a significant impact on the company’s growth, UNFI reported.
“We had never done a UNFI show before February 2022. We were in approximately six UNFI distribution centers with maybe 300 stores, and we’re now in 12 distribution centers and have grown to over 800 retail locations,” Freda stated. “UNFI is the partner who is truly helping us scale our business. To start in New York and be able to distribute products to the West Coast with all the complexities and logistics is enormous. If you get your products and marketing programs right, UNFI is the perfect distributor to help take you nationwide and help you gain the notoriety and visibility that creates meaningful retail relationships.”