How did this all get here?
If you’re like most Whole Foods shoppers, then you’re likely to maze through the aisles with a common inner monologue.
You may think, “Wait, how much are these organic apples?” before you shrug with, “Well, maybe flaxseed crackers will taste as good as regular crackers.” And while you may see the punchline in choosing between two different types of almond milk, you’ll let it slide when you realize, “This whole wheat panko is going to taste amazing on my wild salmon.”
But given all of that, how often do you think, “Hm, I wonder how all of this food gets here in the first place?”
While many of us have gotten used to asking questions about where our food comes from, we often don’t spend as much time wondering about the distributors who bring those eats to us. Who are they, and how did they know we’d love grass-fed bison burgers so much?
Whole Foods' biggest distributor goes by the name of United Natural Foods Incorporated, or UNFI, and it’s the largest independent and publicly-traded entity of its kind in the U.S. and Canada. In the last 40 years, UNFI has been sourcing fresh products from throughout the world and supplying them to organic, natural, and specialty markets in your neighborhood. It then teaches those markets about the ingredients in their chosen items and shows them the best ways to convey their attributes to customers. Basically, UNFI is its own food chain: It finds the best grub, helps figure out the best ways to sell it, and then gives customers the best reasons to eat it.
It’s almost as if UNFI has anticipated your thoughts as you walk through your local grocery store. And because of that insight, it is a major contributor to how Americans think about and eat organic food.
You’ll grow into it
It’s tough not to have an inner monologue when walking through places like Whole Foods. But it’s nice to know that even when those thoughts skip over distribution, UNFI is there to pick up the slack. For nearly a half-century, UNFI has been instrumental in making our growing interests in sustainability part of our everyday shopping routines.
Even so, the company had to start somewhere. And those early days were, well, green.
In 1976, Michael Funk packed organic produce into the back of his Volkswagen van and began selling it to customers who were far ahead of the curve. Eventually, after some steady growth, Funk launched the Mountain People’s Warehouse in the small Northern California town of Auburn. A year later, and on the other end of the country, Norman Cloutier had a similar idea: he opened Cornucopia Natural Foods as a small store in Rhode Island, but it soon transitioned into a wholesale distributor. Funk and Cloutier’s common thinking had equal results — both quickly saw success from their quality products and loyal following. Funk’s warehouse became the largest distributor on its coast, and Cloutier’s counterpart amassed competitors in its own region. By 1996, both companies joined forces under United Natural Foods Incorporated.
That all might sound like the fever dream of your homemade Kombucha-loving roommate, but it’s true: UNFI was onto something from the beginning.
And if UNFI’s first 20 years were impressive, then consider where it still planned to go. In the last two decades, UNFI has grown its brand through more than a dozen nationwide acquisitions to give it clout throughout the country and perspective in various wellness industries. In 1998, for instance, Albert’s Organics joined in — which was the first certified organic distributor with a nationwide reach — followed by Blooming Prairie in the Midwest and Northeast Cooperatives along the Atlantic coast. Natural vitamins and supplements came into the fold with Select Nutrition Distributors in 2004, and by 2010, the merger of SunOpta Distribution Group brought UNFI to Canada.
The last several months have seen exceptional growth as well, with the likes of Nor-Cal Produce, Haddon House, Gourmet Guru, and Global Organic filling the ranks since 2016. At this point, the items under UNFI’s umbrella could fill out countless supermarkets: all-natural produce and protein options can be steps away from fresh baked goods and specialty cheeses, as other aisles can be filled with various seafood, dairy, and deli choices. UNFI also has a hand in beauty and personal care items, as well as frozen and grab-and-go picks. It has everything to suit an all-natural lifestyle.
UNFI has more than 100,000 products in its arsenal, which it serves to chains like Whole Foods, traditional supermarkets, and specialty stores. It coordinates with about 9,000 suppliers and completes it all across 33 distribution centers. It’s quite a feat considering that part of this company began its operations from the back of a van.
In fact, UNFI plans to keep growing. It wants more people to have greater access to organic and natural foods, regardless of where they’re located.
From the retailer perspective, this access can be figured out with UNFI’s category management system, which pairs them to products that are best aligned with their area’s demographics. UNFI also helps with merchandising, marketing, and e-commerce — think data, promotions, and same-day shipping. And customers are part of the plan, too. Nineteen of its distribution centers have an organic classification, as do 1,200 of its suppliers and 15,000 of its products. That means that everyday shoppers can be confident in their organic purchases, which make up forty-three percent of total sales.
Now, let’s return to where we started: the aisles of Whole Foods. Late last spring, Whole Foods — UNFI’s number one customer for the last 19 years — was bought by Amazon for $14 billion (yes, that’s a lot of organic bananas). And while it’s hard to predict what this could mean in the long run, other than what the Atlantic calls “the merchandizing of convenience,” it’s safe to say that UNFI will continue to serve customers and their neighborhood markets with products that promote a healthy lifestyle. Perhaps now, though, they’ll be more connected to customers who shop online.
Even though a company can never truly read your thoughts as you pick and choose products in a grocery aisle, UNFI has earned its educated hunch. With its commitment to providing sustainable foods from equally sustainable sources, UNFI has fostered the type of dependability that’s vital in its field. Because when it comes to food, no matter what we’re thinking, all we really want is quality.
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UNFI is part of our Healthy Living portfolio