Kroger lining up to offer shoppers more Kentucky Proud products

jpatton1@herald-leader.comJuly 21, 2014 

Next week, Kentucky Proud producers will hold a food show in Louisville for one buyer. An entire pitch, just for Kroger.

Cincinnati-based Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the U.S. with $86 billion in sales in 2013, wants to increase its footprint of locally grown and made goods.

It's something that Kentucky farmers have been working at for more than a decade.

The potential sales could be big, very big, said Kristen Branscum, executive director of marketing for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

"We're tickled to death," Branscum said. "The way we see it is this is a huge, huge open door for our farmers and producers and unlike any opportunity we've had at Kroger, ever."

How did this come about? A couple of months ago, Kroger executives met with Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and Branscum.

"They said they wanted to up local ag product presence at all the Krogers in the state," she said.

Scott Chapski, Kroger's local merchandising coordinator, said the chain is responding to consumer demand.

"It is clear that our customers appreciate the good assortment of local products that we currently carry in all of our stores," he said. "Because of the popularity of our local products, and how well they sell, we believe expanding the assortment is the right move for our customers and for the local suppliers."

So the KDA went through the producers signed up with their Kentucky Proud program who grow the fruits, vegetables, chickens, pork, beef and more across the state.

Kroger executives were impressed and asked if the KDA could put on a food show, just for the managers of the 110 Kentucky stores.

They said they want all store managers to hear the farms' stories, and know who is raising the tomato, Branscum said.

Kroger focused just on shelf-stable products — salsas, jellies, honey, sorghum, soaps and lotions, etc. — and invited about 50 vendors to bring 200 new items for managers to sip, sniff and taste. And order, the KDA hopes.

"All area Kroger stores will be adding additional Kentucky Proud products," Chapski said. "The majority will be installing a new Kentucky Proud rack that will be used exclusively for displaying and selling many of these new locally produced products. Many other locally produced products will continue to be integrated into the regular sections throughout the stores."

The items will hit shelves around October, in time for the holidays.

The Kentucky Agriculture Department is pushing to add other products, such as more fresh produce, meats, eggs and dairy, too, down the road, Branscum said.

Kroger bought more than 250,000 cases of fresh, locally grown produce last year from 25 Kentucky growers and suppliers; about 50 varieties of Kentucky-made wine; and 35 million pounds of meat, including Simple Truth chicken, Purnell's sausage, Field and KY Legend ham, and Clifty Farms country ham, as well as products from Kroger-operated Winchester Farms Dairy, Kenlake Foods, and Country Oven Bakery.

For smaller producers who may not have much supply, one of Kroger's official distributors, Fishmarket, is stepping in to handle distribution, she said.

Branscum said Kentucky producers are excited, especially because there is no risk: Kroger is paying for any costs of putting on the food show.

"Our producers have to walk in with their samples, and take the orders," Branscum said. "Some are people who have never sold outside a farmer's market before. One lady said 'If this works, I'll never have to sit outside 8 hours at a farmers market again; I'll just go to them.' We've had some call and say 'is this for real? What's the catch?'"

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.

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