KeHE— a Naturally Chicago co-founder — is accepting applications to its recently launched KeHe elevate program. This program is not a reinvention; rather, it is a “high touch” extension of the longstanding efforts by this leading Good Food and Natural Products distributor to find and get shelf space for emerging brands in stores across the United States.

“The direction that KeHE is going, to be the Next Generation Innovation partner for our retailers, it just made sense that we would have some kind of internal incubator type of program for these emerging brands,” said Rachelle Radcliffe, KeHE Director of Brand Development. “We just needed to have the foundation.”

The foundation was laid by last year’s expansion of KeHE’s Category Management team, which is headed by Katie Paul, Vice President of Category Management and Growth Solutions.  [Paul led an informational program on working with KeHE presented by Naturally Chicago on July 17.]

According to Radcliffe, “One of the reasons we expanded and restructured the team was so we could put a greater emphasis and focus on these emerging brands throughout their time in this program.”

Radcliffe noted that KeHE has “in a way, always acted like an incubator” by onboarding new brands and helping them understand how to work with KeHE, its sales team and other departments, and retailers. She said the reaction of people when they learn about the elevate program is, “Excitement.  They’ve been waiting for a program like this.  It makes sense.”

Radcliffe explained how KeHe elevate — designed to be a “small and intimate” network, eventually of about 200 brands, who will be on-boarded with KeHE throughout the year— will differ from KeHE standard operating procedures:

We’ve always been available to our supplier partners; this is taking it to the next level. Our Category Managers will be having weekly touch-base calls with all elevate suppliers. Depending on what the supplier may be struggling with or trying to educate themselves on, we might bring a subject matter expert from that specific department into the meeting to guide them on how they get past the roadblock. The weekly calls will also hold the suppliers accountable for their commitments and personal accountabilities towards achieving those initiatives. If we’re all working towards achieving the same goals, there’s a much higher probability of success for that supplier.

Suppliers will also be advised on scaling up, but only at a rate they can reasonably handle. Not getting shelf space is the biggest problem for emerging brands. Developing a brand that has that magic touch and becomes immediately popular is a good problem to have, but it can still be a problem.

“They’re very small, they’re emerging, and we don’t want them to bite off more than they can chew right away,” Radcliffe said. “So we’re trying to help them and allow them to grow at a pace that they’re comfortable with, because their success is our success.”

She added, “What we’re trying to do is provide a platform to allow brands to walk before they run. The majority of these brands that will be in elevate don’t have interest from or exposure to the larger chain accounts quite yet.”

The KeHE elevate team will emphasize certain key things that suppliers need to be able to demonstrate, including a solid business plan and sufficient financial backing to ensure that a supplier can meet necessary expenses of entering the retail food space. Radcliffe also said that suppliers need to be thoughtful and do their homework: “They need to be clear on their priorities and what they want to achieve, educate themselves on the retailers their product is going to fit in, know where their product should be merchandised. Be aware of their competition. They’ve done their grass-roots research. When you’re talking to a brand and you’re hearing these things, it kind checks off all the boxes.”

To apply for the program, potential candidates should go to the KeHE elevate page on the RangeMe website (rangeme.com/Elevate). When asked what kind of businesses are most likely to get accepted to the program, Radcliffe pointed to KeHE’s guiding criteria for brands: ingredients, innovation, taste, salability, purpose driven, and time in market.

[“Purpose driven” refers to KeHE’s status as one of the world’s biggest B Corporations (or B Corps), a certification for businesses with the highest standards for transparency, credibility and ethical values.]

As a major player in the Good Food and Natural Products industry, KeHE was rocked the first week in March by the postponement of Natural Products Expo West — the industry’s biggest annual event, held in Anaheim, California — because of coronavirus concerns.

“Expo was a big hit to us all when it comes to finding innovative brands  launching into retail,” Radcliffe said.

Since the KeHE Category Managers couldn’t attend Expo West, they shifted to reviewing innovation from the show virtually. “They are putting the time in to reviewing new brands and items that we missed out at seeing at Expo West.  Hopefully there are some standout brands that are strong candidates for the KeHE elevate program,” Radcliffe said.

And while exhibitor registrations are long closed for KeHE’s own biggest annual event, the Holiday Show scheduled for June 17-18 at Chicago’s McCormick Place, Radcliffe said the Category Management team will “select brands that we are very passionate about for a chance to display their products in the Holiday Show’s Next Generation Innovation Showcase.”

Holiday Show attendees get to vote for their favorite brand in the Showcase, and the winner will be on-boarded with KeHE and receive launch support through the company’s New@KeHE program.

KeHE Distributors is a co-founder of Naturally Chicago along with FamilyFarmed, Presence Marketing, and SPINS