Photos courtesy of UNFI
At a time of constant consternation over supply and distribution challenges across the board, United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) has stepped up its game on the most challenging products: those from small American artisan food makers, particularly perishables. Building on its existing two-year-old program, Cheese & Specialty, American Artisan—made possible by a partnership with Southwest Airlines and the activation of new space in its Pacific Northwest distribution center—UNFI has effectively increased its SKU capacity for artisan cheeses and specialty products. Why is this news? UNFI, based in Providence, Rhode Island, is North America’s largest wholesale distributor of organic, natural, and specialty foods and Whole Foods’ primary supplier.
This is not a blind business decision, of course. American specialty products are almost by definition small batch, far flung, and worthy of careful handling. But they are also retailer darlings. The drive of retailers to add exciting new products to their offerings has been heating up for years. And with discovery nearly brought to a halt by COVID-19, UNFI’s direct ship (no warehousing) of some beloved specialty cheeses and accompaniments stands to do well, while also doing good for the producers.
Rebekah Baker, ACS CCP runs the program at UNFI. “It’s important that this works for both the producer and us. These delicate products need special handling,” she says, and points out that category leaders within UNFI including Rachel Perez, Carlos Souffrant, and Karen Sims, who, like Baker, come from the retail or foodservice side of the industry, will be the ones to shape its success in the future. Right now, the program only covers western states, including Hawaii, and in the short term the expansion will simply increase UNFI’s existing footprint in those states, with current producers. But in the long run the company’s plans are to take the program across the country, and add regional producers where appropriate.
Does it help? Does it work? It appears it does for UNFI, otherwise the company wouldn’t be expanding it. Although there are hurdles and competition from local distributors, the program demonstrates a bold intent to reimagine one of the most challenging aspects of food distribution. Plus, I assume that showing up with new offerings from producers such as Jasper Hill Farm, Boxcarr Handmade Cheese, and Savannah Bee— all of which would embellish any cheese case or deli—together with UNFI’s other offerings to round out a store must be good business.
For some participating producers, including Indiana’s Capriole, makers of knee-buckling goat cheeses like Wabash Cannonball (I may have once hidden one in the fridge for personal consumption, choosing not to share it…), or Missouri’s Green Dirt Farm, makers of beautiful sheep’s milk cheeses, distribution outside of their immediate locales gives them the opportunity to grow only as fast and far as they wish with UNFI’s distribution muscle—a key objective, according to Baker.
It may be a long time before this program reaches east coast retailers, or tips any scales, but the fact that someone has an eye on specialty distribution innovation is just great news.
Producers in UNFI’s Cheese & Specialty, American Artisan Program
Sequatchie Cove Creamery
Nettle Meadow Farm and Artisan Cheese
Green Dirt Farm
Jasper Hill Farm
Boxcarr Handmade Cheese
Salt Spring Island Cheese
Old Chatham Creamery
Capriole Goat Cheese
Stepladder Ranch & Creamery
Savannah Bee Company