Jeni’s helps other small companies get their frozen products into stores

The Columbus Dispatch
By Mary Vanac
December 21, 2012

More and more grocery stores and restaurants from Michigan to Washington, D.C., are stocking Luna Burger’s Ohio-made vegan burgers and breakfast patties.

“We’re excited about our list of retail locations,” said co-owner Megan Luna. “And it’s growing. That makes us happy.”

The growth also makes John Lowe, CEO of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, happy.

The artisan ice-cream-maker in Columbus started Eat Well Distribution early this year to get novel products of other small, mostly local, food companies on retail shelves nationwide.

Eat Well is meeting the needs of small frozen-food companies that don’t have enough sales to attract a handful of large national distributors. Eat Well also distributes its food in a unique way: packing it with dry ice and shipping it to retailers rather than delivering it with trucks.

“A company like Jeni’s that figured out how to do this for ice cream could really help other companies figure out a game plan to get their products to market,” said Nate Filler, president and CEO of the Ohio Grocers Association.

Luna Burger was Eat Well’s first client. “We’ve just about doubled our retail locations with them in less than a year,” Luna said. “So that’s been a significant impact for us.”

By taking over Luna Burger’s sales and distribution responsibilities, Eat Well also has freed up owners Megan and Barbie Luna to do other things, Megan Luna said.

Eat Well is compensated mostly with the difference between what it pays for the products it distributes and what retailers end up paying for the products. “As a simple matter, we buy from them at a distributor price and we sell at a wholesale price,” Lowe said.

Jeni’s expertise at taking orders, packing and shipping boxes of frozen food, and learning the lingo of frozen-food retailers sprang from necessity.

“When we started our wholesale business three and a half years ago, we didn’t sell enough ice cream for distributors to want to take up space at their warehouses,” Lowe said.

So a team at Jeni’s started packing 45 pints of ice cream and dry ice in a box, and shipping the boxes to retailers who stocked their own shelves.

“The Hill’s Market was our first customer, and then Foragers in Brooklyn, New York,” Lowe said. “ These retailers were always a little skeptical. But we would talk them into trying it.”

Today, Jeni’s is the largest buyer of dry ice in Ohio and ships its ice creams to 675 retail locations nationwide, Lowe said. It made business sense to leverage the company’s sales, marketing and distribution expertise by adding other small, frozen-food companies.

“We got excited about another product in town called Luna Burger, vegan veggie burgers that we think are fantastic,” Lowe said. “They’ve got a great product, but the chances of them breaking through and making a name for themselves is pretty thin” without a distributor.

Consolidation in the food industry by retailers, distributors and producers has left small, young food companies with few sales and distribution options, he said. Eat Well’s help could improve their odds for sales breakthroughs.

In addition to Luna Burger, Eat Well Distribution serves Brezel, the maker of gourmet Bavarian pretzels at Columbus’ North Market.

Eat Well and Brezel have been developing a line of four flavors of pretzels to be distributed first locally, then statewide, and eventually nationwide, beginning early next year, said Brittany Baum, founder and owner of Brezel.

“We really don’t know what to expect, but we’re hoping our retail business will pick up, and more people will put our products on their menus,” said Baum, who expects to pay Eat Well a success fee every time it gets her pretzels on a new store shelf.

Eat Well also distributes dry beans, grains, seeds and flour for Shagbark Seed & Mill in Athens, as well as Naanwiches — frozen naan bread sandwiches filled with Indian dishes such as Chicken Tikka Masala — for Sukhi’s Gourmet Indian Foods in Hayward, Calif., and herb-infused, whole-food snack bars for Simple Squares in Chicago.

For Lowe, using Jeni’s expertise “on behalf of these other great companies is fun and exciting,” he said. “We think that if we help companies like Luna Burger and Shagbark grow with very low-cost services, their volumes will increase, and good will come of it.”

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