Entries

International Directory of Company Histories International Directory of Company Histories Further reading

NON JS

United Natural Foods, Inc.

United Natural Foods, Inc.

260 Lake Road
Dayville, Connecticut 06241
U.S.A.
Telephone: (860) 779-2800
Fax: (860) 779-2811
Web site: http://www.unfi.com

Public Company
Incorporated:
1977 as Cornucopia Natural Foods, Inc.
Employees: 3,900
Sales: $2.06 billion (2005)
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
Ticker Symbol: UNFI
NAIC: 422110 General Line Grocery Wholesalers

United Natural Foods, Inc., is the leading distributor of natural foods and related products in the United States. Originally known as Cornucopia Natural Foods, Inc., the company has expanded through strong internal growth, acquisitions, and mergers. United Natural has more than 20,000 customersincluding independent retailers, natural superchains, conventional supermarkets, and restaurantsacross the country. The company is the primary supplier to a majority of its customers, offering them a mix of more than 40,000 high-quality national, regional, and private-label natural products. These products include groceries and general merchandise, nutritional supplements, bulk and foodservice products, perishables and frozen foods, and personal care items. For more than ten years, United Natural has been the primary distributor to the two largest natural superchains: Whole Foods Markets, Inc. and Wild Oats Markets, Inc. To complement its distributorship, the company also owns and operates the National Retail Group (NRG), which consists of 12 retail stores selling natural products in the eastern United States. The company has organized its ten distribution operations into four principal units: United Natural Foods in the Eastern Region (previously Cornucopia Natural Foods, Inc. and Stow Mills, Inc.); United Natural Foods, Western Region; Albert's Organics; and Selection Nutrition. For the fiscal year ending July 31, 2004, United Natural generated net sales and operating income of $1.7 billion and $31.9 million, respectively.

The 1970s: Going Back to Nature for Business

The 1970s could be seen as a time of search for relevance between "the world that had been" and "the world that was becoming." Entrepreneurs made and sold tofu; they raised and marketed herbs as well as organic and natural foods. Yoga gained popularity as a calming form of exercise. According to Elaine Lipson's comment in the February 1999 issue of Natural Foods Merchandiser, in 1979 the editorial staff of that periodical used typewriters to chronicle the growth of the natural products world. There were no fax machines, web sites, or compact/digital-video discs and players. The period of transition between the rebellions of the 1960s and the excesses of the 1980s, Lipson wrote, was a "perfect breeding ground for natural products visionaries ready to blend alternative lifestyles with business potential."

One of these visionaries was Norman A. Cloutier, who founded Cornucopia Natural Foods, Inc. (Cornucopia) in Coventry, Rhode Island. From 1977 to 1978 he operated Cornucopia as a retail store for natural foods. In 1979, however, Cloutier changed his focus from retailing to the distribution of natural foods and related products. Although most natural products were food products (which included organic foods), the natural products industry encompassed a number of other categories, such as nutritional and herbal supplements, toiletries and personal care items, naturally based cosmetics, natural/homeopathic medicines, and naturally based cleaning agents.

As a matter of fact, by changing from retailing to distribution, Cloutier zeroed in on an emerging need in the rapidly expanding natural products industry. Suppliers of natural products found it difficult to meet the demands of an increasing number of retail outlets; they relied on distributors to reach a fragmented customer base and to provide information on consumer preferences at the retail level. Retailers wanted more frequent deliveries, greater product selection, higher fill rates, more information on product movement, and specialized programssuch as financing information, merchandising assistance, marketing support, and assistance in consumer education. Cloutier envisioned the possibility of meeting these needs through a national natural products distribution business that would provide the sourcing, purchasing, warehousing, marketing, and transportation of natural products from suppliers to retailers.

Launching a National Presence: 198095

At first, Cornucopia grew by acquiring other distributors of a variety of natural foods and related products. For example, in 1985 the company purchased two distributors to strengthen its position in the New England market and to establish distribution in the mid-Atlantic states: Harvest Provisions, Inc. of Boston, and Earthly Organics, Inc. of Philadelphia. Cornucopia also acquired two specialty suppliers of natural products. In 1987 the company bought Natural Food Systems, Inc., a distributor of seafood and owner of the "Natural Sea" brand; in 1990, Cornucopia acquired certain assets of BGS Distributing, Inc., a regional distributor and manufacturer of vitamins and the holder of distribution rights to several additional product lines. Furthermore, in 1991 the company made its way into the southeastern United States by opening a distribution center in Georgia.

Then, in 1993, Cornucopia added retailing to its distributor operations by forming the Natural Retail Group with the intention of acquiring retailers of natural products. The NRG strategy consisted of buying independent stores but keeping the former owners to run the stores. By April 1995 Cornucopia owned and operated eight natural food stores located in Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York. The company believed that these stores received a number of advantages: Cornucopia provided its financial strength and marketing expertise, economies of scale resulting from group purchases, and access to a wider selection of products. The NRG retail stores offered products in each of Cornucopia's six main distributor categories as well as produce, meat, poultry, fresh seafoods, baked goods, and other prepared foods. In addition, NRG provided consumer education through informational brochures, promotional flyers, seminars, workshops, cooking classes, and product samplings.

On the other hand, benefits also accrued to the parent company, which was both the owner of, and distributor to, its retail stores. Cornucopia controlled the purchases made by these stores; increased the distribution and marketing of its private-label products; and stayed in touch with the retail marketplace. Furthermore, in these NRG stores, the company could test and evaluate consumer reaction to select products before offering them to a broader, national customer base.

Having established itself in the eastern United States, in May 1995 Cornucopia reached across the country to purchase Seattle, Washington-based Nutrasource, Inc., a distributor of natural products in the Pacific Northwest region. Then in July the company acquired Denver-based Rainbow Natural Foods, Inc. (Rainbow), the largest distributor of natural products in the Rocky Mountains and the Plains areas.

199699: Stabilizing a National Presence

Cornucopia buttressed its entry into the West in 1996 when it completed a merger with Auburn, California-based Mountain People's Warehouse, Incorporated, the largest distributor of natural products in the western portion of the United States, to form a new company: United Natural Foods, Inc. Cloutier had succeeded in crossing the country with his company. On the other hand, Michael S. Funk, founder and president of Mountain People's, thought the merger broadened "Mountain People's buying power and enabled the company to offer more services and a wider selection of natural foods and products," according to the April 20, 1996 issue of the Sacramento Bee. United now had five distribution centers strategically located in the states of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, and Washington, as well as two satellite staging facilities in Florida and Pennsylvania. The company was well positioned to offer nationwide distribution services: namely, next-day delivery service to a majority of its active customers and multiple deliveries each week to its largest customers. Cornucopia could better coordinate its inventory management with regional purchasing patterns and realize significant operating efficiencies. The company also was able to eliminate geographic overlaps in distribution; integrate administrative, finance, and accounting functions; expand marketing and customer-service programs; and upgrade information systems.

United Natural, however, did not centralize the making of decisions for the majority of its purchasing, pricing, sales, and marketing. These managerial activities remained at the regional level in order to expedite response to the preferences of regional and local customers. Each of the three 1996 regional operators (Cornucopia, Rainbow, and Mountain People's) were better suited to make these decisions because they had extensive knowledge of the local and regional taste preferences in their particular marketplace and could provide products to accommodate local trends. By the end of fiscal 1995, the company's net sales had risen to $283.32 million, compared with $124.37 million at the end of fiscal 1992. United Natural filed an initial public offering on September 4, 1996 and began to trade its stock on the NASDAQ under the ticker symbol UNFI on November 1, 1996.

Company Perspectives:

Our mission is to excel in the distribution of natural and organic foods and wellness products by fulfilling the highest standards for quality, consistency, product assortments, dependability, value-added support services and integrity in our business and personal relationships; to exceed the needs and expectations of all our stakeholders: our customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, communities, the environment and the planet; and to be an enduring, successful and profitable company.

The company's private-label products addressed the preferences of customers wanting products not offered by other suppliers. For instance, in 1997 United Natural launched an organic infant food product called Organic Baby. In the February 1997 issue of Natural Foods Merchandiser, Emily Esterson commented that sales in baby food were declining because "baby boomers' children were past baby-food age." In most natural products stores, the only available organic baby food was that of Earth's Best, owned by Pittsburgh-based H.J. Heinz. United Natural was interested in expanding to serve innovative, highly specialized niche markets. Other private-label products included Clear Spring Waters, Farmer's Pride eggs, Guardian vitamins and supplements, Natural Sea fish products, and Gour-met Artisan pasta and oils. Each year United Natural studied both existing and anticipated consumer preferences in order to evaluate more than 10,000 new products in the natural, organic, ethnic, gourmet, and specialty areas. The company purchased products from approximately 1,800 suppliers and also sourced products from suppliers throughout Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, and Australia.

United Natural reached its goal of being the nation's largest distributor of natural foods and related products in November 1997 when it completed a merger with Chesterfield, New Hampshire-based Stow Mills, Inc., a distributor of natural foods and related products in New England, New York, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the Midwest. According to Emily Esterson's article, "United Adds Stow, Strengthens Midwest Region," in the August 1997 issue of National Foods Merchandiser, Stow had sales of $208 million for fiscal 1996 and distributed 12,000 products to stores in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the Mid-Atlantic regions. The merger "filled gaps in United Natural's services by adding warehouses in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, plus a Chicago facility that Stow Mills acquired when it bought Rainbow Distributing in 1996," Esterson wrote.

Cloutier also pointed out that Stow brought additional natural products expertise to the company because "Stow is a well-established, sophisticated operation with experienced and talented staff. There is no shortage of good ideas in the industry, but what separates the successful from the unsuccessful is organizations with the expertise to execute plans," said Cloutier. Furthermore, he noted that "despite the growth of the company and concerted efforts to reach conventional grocers, United remained loyal to independent retailers, which made up approximately 60 percent of the company's sales." According to the June 30, 1997 issue of Sacramento Business Journal, United Natural President and Vice-Chairman Funk commented that by 1997 the natural foods industry was increasing by 15 percent a year and that conventional supermarkets were selling more and more natural foods products. "More people are aware of diet and how it affects our health and are into self-healing," Funk said, and added that an aging population would fuel continued growth of the industry.

In February 1998 United Natural acquired Hershey Import Co., Inc., a business specializing in the international trading, roasting, and packaging of nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and snack items. In September of the same year United Natural bought Albert's Organics, Inc., a company specializing in the purchase, sale, and distribution of produce and other perishable items. Albert's was the country's largest organic produce wholesaler, according to the March 17, 1997 issue of Business News New Jersey. Since 1985 United Natural had successfully completed 20 acquisitions and/or mergers of distributors, suppliers, and retail stores. The company's net sales increased to $728.9 million for fiscal 1998, compared with $634.8 million for fiscal 1997.

19992000: Reorganizing for a New Millennium

United Natural became a primary source of supply to a diverse base of customers having significantly varied needs. To meet these needs the company distributed more than 26,000 products consisting of national brands, regional brands, and private-label brands. The company held distribution rights to more than 1,000 nationally known products. More than 800 regional brand products were distributed to consumers in specific geographic regions. United Natural's decentralized purchasing practices enabled regional buyers familiar with consumer demands in their respective regions to offer products of special appeal to these regional consumers.

During fiscal 1999, after an operations and logistics study, United Natural found that $3.4 million could be saved in the northeast region if the company operated two warehouses instead of three in that area. Consequently, the business of the Chesterfield, New Hampshire-based warehouse of Stow Mills was integrated into the Dayville, Connecticut, facility and into the expanded New Oxford, Pennsylvania, warehouse. Continuing problems and expenses related to the consolidation resulted in lower sales, lower gross margins, and higher operating expenses in the East for the first quarter of fiscal 2000. Furthermore, Chairman and CEO Norman Cloutier resigned for personal reasons, and top management had to be restructured. Michael S. Funk, United's vice-chairman and president, was elected to succeed Cloutier as CEO. Thomas B. Simone was elected chairman of the board, where he had served since 1996; he was president and CEO of Simone & Associates, a consulting company for healthcare and natural products investment.

Key Dates:

1977:
Norman A. Cloutier founds Cornucopia Natural Foods, Inc., a retail store for natural foods, in Coventry, Rhode Island.
1979:
Cloutier shifts the focus of Cornucopia from retailing to distribution.
1980:
Cornucopia initiates a period of aggressive expansion in the northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states.
1989:
60 Minutes reports on the carcinogenic properties of Alar, a chemical used widely in apple growing; demand for organic foods skyrockets.
1991:
The company expands into the southeastern United States by opening a distribution center in Georgia.
1993:
Cloutier forms National Retail Group to acquire and operate retail outlets of natural products.
1996:
Cornucopia merges with California-based Mountain People's Warehouse and incorporates as United Natural Foods, Inc., trading on NASDAQ.
1997:
The company merges with New Hampshire-based Stow Mills, Inc. and becomes the nation's leading distributor of natural foods and related products.
2002:
Blooming Prairie Cooperative is acquired; the company completes its merger with Northeast Cooperatives.
2003:
Steven H. Townsend is named president and CEO; the company becomes the first and largest certified organic distributor in North America.
2005:
United Natural completes the acquisition of Roots & Fruits Cooperative; Townsend announces his retirement in October and Michael Funk once again assumes the role of president and CEO.

The change of management came at a time when sales of natural foods were still spiraling upward. According to industry analyst David Wanetick, who chaired the 1999 Natural Foods Industry Conference, sales of natural products continued to grow because of increased accessibility. "While there were fewer than 90 natural products stores in 1990 with more than 5,000 square feet," Wanetick told Natural Food Merchandiser, he expected "the number of these stores to reach 1,000 by the year 2000." Wanetick commented that another factor propelling sales of natural foods was Americans' increased health consciousness: "Millions of American adults are now watching their fat intake and monitoring their dietary cholesterol," he explained. Among other trends beneficial to the natural foods industry, Wanetick noted, were the fact that rising costs of healthcare led more people to take better care of their health and that gourmet cooks advocated the use of natural products to ensure better taste. Yet, "despite all these growth drivers, natural foods have barely penetrated their markets. Since natural foods account for only 2.5 percent of the total food market, natural goods still have a great deal of potential," Wanetick emphasized.

Indeed, as the 20th century drew to a close, mainstream customers "were moving in unprecedented numbers into the natural products channel," according to trends in the natural marketplace reported in the December 1999 issue of Natural Foods Merchandiser. Uppermost in the minds of these consumers was "the concept of 'whole health'an aggregation of many different lifestyle and shopping choices into a self-directed program of healthful living." From its earliest days of operation under predecessor Cornucopia Natural Foods, United Natural had seen the business potential of a focus on natural foods and related products. Because of the company's remarkable past performance and of growing consumer awareness of "whole health," it was possible to assume that the difficulties United Natural experienced during the first quarter of fiscal 2000 were a temporary setback and that the company would continue to prosper.

Success in 2000 and Beyond

Sure enough, United Natural experienced success due to industry conditions as well as its growth strategy. Acquisitions, coupled with the expansion of its distribution centers, allowed the company to enter new geographic markets, increase its customer base and market share, and broaden its burgeoning product line. During 2001, United Natural strengthened its foothold in the southwestern United States by leasing a new distribution center in the Los Angeles, California area. In addition, it bought Palm Harbor Natural Foods, a Florida-based company.

The firm faced a major setback in 2002 when Wild Oats Markets, one of its largest customers, chose competitor Tree of Life Inc. as its supplier. Wild Oats began to experience problems with its new primary supplier, however, and quickly returned to United Natural. In January 2003, a new five-year contract was signed and in April of that year, United Natural resumed its position as Wild Oats' main distributor. The company also signed a deal with Sodexho USA to supply its 6,000 foodservice outlets with natural and organic foods. During 2004, United Natural renewed its contract with Whole Foods.

In 2002, United Natural acquired Blooming Prairie Cooperative, the Midwest's largest volume distributor of natural foods, in a $31 million deal. It also completed its merger with Northeast Cooperatives, a distributor serving more than 2,800 customers in the Northeast and Midwest.

In January 2003, Steven H. Townsend was named president and CEO. Late that year he assumed the chairman position as well. Industry conditions bode well for United Natural as demand for natural and organic products continued its upward trend. The company became the first and largest certified organic distributor in North America in 2003. United Natural received its certification from Quality Assurance International, an independent, third-party organization responsible for verifying organic integrity and quality.

United Natural had added more than 1,400,000 square feet of capacity since 2000, increasing its distribution capacity by 93 percent by 2005. A total of 97 percent of its deliveries were completed on time, putting the company in an enviable position among its competitors. Its profits had more than doubled since 2001, and the company's financial future looked promising. United Natural completed another acquisition in 2005, adding Roots & Fruits Cooperative to its arsenal. Townsend announced his retirement in October 2005 and Michael Funk once again assumed the role as president and CEO. Townsend was expected to leave the chairman post in December of that year.

Principal Subsidiaries

Albert's Organics, Inc.; Natural Retail Group, Inc.; Nutrasource, Inc.; Rainbow Natural Foods, Inc.; Select Nutrition Distributors, Inc.; Stow Mills, Inc.; United Natural Foods Pennsylvania, Inc.; United Natural Foods West, Inc.; United Natural Trading, Inc. Co.; United Natural Transportation Co.; United Northeast LLC.

Principal Competitors

Kehe Food Distributors, Inc.; Tree of Life Distribution, Inc.; Nature's Best, Inc.

Further Reading

"Creating Healthy Business," Sacramento Bee (California), April 20, 1996.

Esterson, Emily, "United Adds Stow, Strengthens Midwest Region," Natural Foods Merchandiser, August 1997.

Granato, Heather, "The Changing Distribution of Natural Foods," Organic and Natural News, November 1999.

"Healthy Deals," Business News New Jersey, September 28, 1998, p. 3.

Johnson, Kelly, "Merger Propels Food Firm to Top," Sacramento Business Journal, June 30, 1997, pp. 1-2.

Lambert, Emily, "Natural Selection," Forbes, January 10, 2005, p. 144.

Lipson, Elaine, "Humble Beginnings Become Big Business," Natural Foods Merchandiser, February 1999.

Marilyn, Much, "Distributor Keeps on Truckin' Thanks to Demand," Investor's Business Daily, March 18, 2004.

Plank, Dave, "Healthy Food Viewed As Key Lifestyle Choice," Natural Foods Merchandiser, December 1999.

"United Natural Foods Acquires Roots & Fruits," Progressive Grocer, July 14, 2005.

"United Natural Foods Chooses New Chief," Progressive Grocer, January 1, 2003.

"United Natural Foods Has Completed Its $31 Million Acquisition of Blooming Prairie Cooperative," Frozen Food Age, November 1, 2002.

Wells, Danny, "20 Years and Still Going," Natural Foods Merchandiser, February 1999.

                                          Gloria A. Lemieux

                           update: Christina M. Stansell

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

Lemieux, Gloria; Stansell, Christina. "United Natural Foods, Inc." International Directory of Company Histories. 2006. Encyclopedia.com. 28 Sep. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

Lemieux, Gloria; Stansell, Christina. "United Natural Foods, Inc." International Directory of Company Histories. 2006. Encyclopedia.com. (September 28, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3483400108.html

Lemieux, Gloria; Stansell, Christina. "United Natural Foods, Inc." International Directory of Company Histories. 2006. Retrieved September 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3483400108.html

United Natural Foods, Inc.

United Natural Foods, Inc.

260 Lake Road
Dayville, Connecticut 06241
U.S.A.
Telephone: (860) 779-2800
Fax: (860) 779-2811

Public Company
Incorporated:
1977 as Cornucopia Natural Foods, Inc.
Employees: 2,600
Sales: $857 million (fiscal 1999)
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
Ticker Symbol: UNFI
NAIC: 42211 General Line Grocery Wholesalers

United Natural Foods, Inc. is the leader of only two nationwide distributors of natural foods and related products. Originally known as Cornucopia Natural Foods, Inc., the company has expanded through strong internal growth, acquisitions, and mergers; it is the only publicly traded distributor of natural and organic foods. United Natural has over 6,500 customersincluding independent retailers, natural superchains, conventional supermarkets, and restaurantslocated in 46 states. The company is the primary supplier to a majority of its customers, offering them a mix of more than 26,000 high-quality national, regional, and private-label natural products. These products include groceries and general merchandise, nutritional supplements, bulk and foodservice products, perishables and frozen foods, and personal care items. For over ten years United Natural has been the primary distributor to the two largest natural superchains: Whole Foods Markets, Inc. and Wild Oats Markets, Inc. To complement its distributorship, the company also owns and operates the National Retail Group (NRG), which consists of 11 retail stores selling natural products in the eastern United States. The company has organized its 12 distribution operations into four principal units: United Natural Foods in the Eastern Region (previously Cornucopia Natural Foods, Inc. and Stow Mills, Inc.); Rainbow Natural Foods, Inc. in the Central Region; Mountain Peoples Warehouse Incorporated in the Western Region; and Alberts Organics, Inc., serving select markets throughout the United States. For the 1999 fiscal year ending July 31, 1999, United Natural generated net sales and operating income of $857 million and $26.8 million, respectively. Compared to the net sales and operating income of fiscal 1994, these numbers represent compound annual growth rates of 20 percent and 26.1 percent, respectively. On June 29, 1999 Standard & Poors added United Natural Foods to the S&P SmallCap 600 Index.

The 1970s: Going Back to Nature for Business

The 1970s could be seen as a time of search for relevance between the world that had been and the world that was becoming. Entrepreneurs made and sold tofu; they raised and marketed herbs as well as organic and natural foods. Yoga gained popularity as a calming form of exercise. According to Elaine Lipsons comment in the February 1999 issue of Natural Foods Merchandiser, in 1979 the editorial staff of that periodical used typewriters to chronicle the growth of the natural products world. There were no fax machines, web sites, or compact/digital-video discs and players. The period of transition between the rebellions of the 1960s and the excesses of the 1980s, Lipson wrote, was a perfect breeding ground for natural products visionaries ready to blend alternative lifestyles with business potential.

One of these visionaries was Norman A. Cloutier, who founded Cornucopia Natural Foods, Inc. (Cornucopia) in Coventry, Rhode Island. From 1977 to 1978 he operated Cornucopia as a retail store for natural foods. In 1979, however, Cloutier changed his focus from retailing to the distribution of natural foods and related products. Although most natural products were food productswhich included organic foodsthe natural products industry encompassed a number of other categories, such as nutritional and herbal supplements, toiletries and personal care items, naturally based cosmetics, natural/homeopathic medicines, and naturally based cleaning agents.

As a matter of fact, by changing from retailing to distribution, Cloutier zeroed in on an emerging need in the rapidly expanding natural products industry. Suppliers of natural products found it difficult to meet the demands of an increasing number of retail outlets; they relied on distributors to reach a fragmented customer base and to provide information on consumer preferences at the retail level. Retailers wanted more frequent deliveries, greater product selection, higher fill rates, more information on product movement, and specialized programssuch as financing information, merchandising assistance, marketing support, and assistance in consumer education. Cloutier envisioned the possibility of meeting these needs through a national natural products distribution business that would provide the sourcing, purchasing, warehousing, marketing, and transportation of natural products from suppliers to retailers.

Launching a National Presence: 198095

At first, Cornucopia grew by acquiring other distributors of a variety of natural foods and related products. For example, in 1985 the company purchased two distributors to strengthen its position in the New England market and to establish distribution in the mid-Atlantic states: Harvest Provisions, Inc. of Boston, and Earthly Organics, Inc. of Philadelphia. Cornucopia also acquired two specialty suppliers of natural products. In 1987 the company bought Natural Food Systems, Inc.a distributor of seafood and owner of the Natural Sea brand; in 1990, Cornucopia acquired certain assets of BGS Distributing, Inc.a regional distributor and manufacturer of vitamins and the holder of distribution rights to several additional product lines. Furthermore, in 1991 the company made its way into the southeastern United States by opening a distribution center in Georgia.

Then, in 1993, Cornucopia added retailing to its distributor operations by forming the Natural Retail Group with the intention of acquiring retailers of natural products. The NRG strategy consisted of buying independent stores but keeping the former owners to run the stores. By April 1995 Cornucopia owned and operated eight natural food stores located in Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York. The company believed that these stores received a number of advantages: Cornucopia provided its financial strength and marketing expertise, economies of scale resulting from group purchases, and access to a wider selection of products. The NRG retail stores offered products in each of Cornucopias six main distributor categories as well as produce, meat, poultry, fresh seafoods, baked goods, and other prepared foods. In addition, NRG provided consumer education through informational brochures, promotional flyers, seminars, workshops, cooking classes, and product samplings.

On the other hand, benefits also accrued to the parent company, which was both the owner of, and distributor to, its retail stores. Cornucopia controlled the purchases made by these stores; increased the distribution and marketing of its private label products; and stayed in touch with the retail marketplace. Furthermore, in these NRG stores, the company could test and evaluate consumer reaction to select products before offering them to a broader, national customer base.

Having established itself in the eastern United States, in May 1995 Cornucopia reached across the country to purchase Seattle, Washington-based Nutrasource, Inc.a distributor of natural products in the Pacific Northwest regionand in July acquired Denver-based Rainbow Natural Foods, Inc. (Rainbow)the largest distributor of natural products in the Rocky Mountains and the Plains areas.

199699: Stabilizing a National Presence

Cornucopia buttressed its entry into the West in 1996 when it completed a merger with Auburn, California-based Mountain Peoples Warehouse, Incorporatedthe largest distributor of natural products in the western portion of the United Statesto form a new company: United Natural Foods, Inc. Cloutier had succeeded in crossing the country with his company. On the other hand, Michael S. Funkfounder and president of Mountain Peoplesthought the merger broadened Mountain Peoples buying power and enabled the company to offer more services and a wider selection of natural foods and products, according to the April 20, 1996 issue of the Sacramento Bee. United now had five distribution centers strategically located in the states of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, and Washington as well as two satellite staging facilities in Florida and Pennsylvania. The company was well positioned to offer nationwide distribution services: namely, next-day delivery service to a majority of its active customers and multiple deliveries each week to its largest customers. Cornucopia now could better coordinate its inventory management with regional purchasing patterns and realize significant operating efficiencies. The company also was able to eliminate geographic overlaps in distribution; integrate administrative, finance, and accounting functions; expand marketing and customer-service programs; and upgrade information systems.

Company Perspectives:

We believe that we are well positioned to provide value-added distribution services to our customers at attractive prices while also providing superior customer service. In addition to our volume purchasing power advantage, a critical component of our position as a low-cost provider is our management of warehouse and distribution costs, primarily as a result of utilizing larger distribution centers within each of our geographic regions and integrating our facilities through our nationwide interregional logistics network. In addition, we have made significant investments in transportation equipment and information technology to enable us to serve our customers.

United Natural, however, did not centralize the making of decisions for the majority of its purchasing, pricing, sales, and marketing. These managerial activities remained at the regional level in order to expedite response to the preferences of regional and local customers. Each of the three 1996 regional operators (Cornucopia, Rainbow, and Mountain Peoples) were better suited to make these decisions because they had extensive knowledge of the local and regional taste preferences in their particular marketplace and could provide products to accommodate local trends. By the end of fiscal 1995, the companys net sales had risen to $283.32 million, compared to $124.37 million at the end of fiscal 1992. United Natural filed an Initial Public Offering on September 4, 1996 and began to trade its stock on the NASDAQ under the ticker symbol UNFI on November 1, 1996.

The companys private label products addressed the preferences of customers wanting products not offered by other suppliers. For instance, in 1997 United Natural launched an organic infant food product called Organic Baby. In the February 1997 issue of Natural Foods Merchandiser, Emily Esterson commented that sales in baby food were declining because baby boomers children were past baby-food age. In most natural products stores, the only available organic baby food was that of Earths Best, owned by Pittsburgh-based H.J. Heinz. United Natural was interested in expanding to serve innovative, highly specialized niche markets. Other private label products included Clear Spring Waters, Farmers Pride eggs, Guardian vitamins and supplements, Natural Sea fish products, and Gourmet Artisan pasta and oils. Each year United Natural studied both existing and anticipated consumer preferences in order to evaluate more than 10,000 new products in the natural, organic, ethnic, gourmet, and specialty areas. The company purchased products from approximately 1,800 suppliers and also sourced products from suppliers throughout Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, and Australia.

United Natural reached its goal of being the nations largest distributor of natural foods and related products in November 1997 when it completed a merger with Chesterfield, New Hampshire-based Stow Mills, Inc., a distributor of natural foods and related products in New England, New York State, the mid-Atlantic states, and the Midwest. According to Emily Estersons article United Adds Stow, Strengthens Midwest Region, in the August 1997 issue of National Foods Merchandiser, Stow had sales of $208 million for fiscal 1996 and distributed 12,000 products to stores in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the mid-Atlantic regions. The merger filled gaps in United Naturals services by adding warehouses in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, plus a Chicago facility that Stow Mills acquired when it bought Rainbow Distributing in 1996, Esterson wrote.

Cloutier also pointed out that Stow brought additional natural products expertise to the company because Stow is a well-established, sophisticated operation with experienced and talented staff. There is no shortage of good ideas in the industry, but what separates the successful from the unsuccessful is organizations with the expertise to execute plans, said Cloutier. Furthermore, he noted that despite the growth of the company and concerted efforts to reach conventional grocers, United remained loyal to independent retailers, which made up approximately 60 percent of the companys sales. According to the June 30, 1997 issue of Sacramento Business Journal, United Natural President and Vice-Chairman Funk commented that by 1997 the natural foods industry was increasing by 15 percent a year and that conventional supermarkets were selling more and more natural foods products. More people are aware of diet and how it affects our health and are into self-healing, Funk said, and added that an aging population would fuel continued growth of the industry.

In February 1998 United Natural acquired Hershey Import Co., Inc., a business specializing in the international trading, roasting, and packaging of nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and snack items. In September of the same year United Natural bought Alberts Organics Inc., a company specializing in the purchase, sale, and distribution of produce and other perishable items. Alberts was the countrys largest organic produce wholesaler, according to the March 17, 1997 issue of Business News New Jersey. Since 1985 United Natural had successfully completed 20 acquisitions and/or mergers of distributors, suppliers, and retail stores. The companys net sales increased to $728.9 million for fiscal 1998, compared to $634.8 million for fiscal 1997.

19992000: Reorganizing for a New Millennium

United Natural became a primary source of supply to a diverse base of customers having significantly varied needs. To meet these needs the company distributed over 26,000 products consisting of national brands, regional brands, and private label brands. The company held distribution rights to more than 1,000 nationally known products. Over 800 regional brand products were distributed to consumers in specific geographic regions. United Naturals decentralized purchasing practices enabled regional buyers familiar with consumer demands in their respective regions to offer products of special appeal to these regional consumers.

Key Dates:

1977:
Norman A. Cloutier founds Cornucopia Natural Foods, Inc., a retail store for natural foods, in Coventry, Rhode Island.
1979:
Cloutier shifts focus of Cornucopia from retailing to distribution of natural foods and related products.
1980:
Cornucopia initiates period of aggressive expansion in northeastern and mid-Atlantic states; The Organic Food Production Association of America is founded to create industrywide guidelines.
1989:
60 Minutes reports on the carcinogenic properties of Alar, a chemical used widely in apple growing; demand for organic foods skyrockets.
1991:
Company expands into southeastern United States by opening a distribution center in Georgia.
1993:
Cloutier forms National Retail Group to acquire and operate retail outlets of natural products.
1995:
Company acquires a distributorship in Pacific northeast region and another in Rocky Mountains and Plains areas.
1996:
Cornucopia merges with California-based Mountain Peoples Warehouse and incorporates as United Natural Foods, Inc.; company begins to trade its stock on NASDAQ under the symbol UNFI.
1997:
Company merges with New Hampshire-based Stow Mill, Inc., becomes the nations leading distributor of natural foods and related products.
1999:
Company consolidates systems and operations of its eastern region.
2000:
United Foods restructures management.

During fiscal 1999, after an operations and logistics study, United Natural found that $3.4 million could be saved in the northeast region if the company operated two warehouses instead of three in that area. Consequently, the business of the Chesterfield, New Hampshire-based warehouse of Stow Mills was integrated into the Dayville, Connecticut facility and into the expanded New Oxford, Pennsylvania warehouse. Continuing problems and expenses related to the consolidation resulted in lower sales, lower gross margins, and higher operating expenses in the East for the first quarter of fiscal 2000. Furthermore, Chairman and CEO Norman Cloutier resigned for personal reasons, and top management had to be restructured. Michael S. Funk, Uniteds vice-chairman and president, was elected to succeed Cloutier as CEO. Thomas B. Simone was elected chairman of the board, where he had served since 1996; he was president and CEO of Simone & Associates, a consulting company for healthcare and natural products investment.

The change of management came at a time when sales of natural foods were still spiraling upward. According to industry analyst David Wanetickwho chaired the 1999 Natural Foods Industry Conferencesales of natural products continued to grow because of increased accessibility. While there were fewer than 90 natural products stores in 1990 with more than 5,000 square feet, Wanetick told Natural Food Merchandiser, he expected the number of these stores to reach 1,000 by the year 2000. Wanetick commented that another factor propelling sales of natural foods was Americans increased health consciousness: Millions of American adults are now watching their fat intake and monitoring their dietary cholesterol, he explained. Among other trends beneficial to the natural foods industry, Wanetick noted, were the fact that rising costs of healthcare led more people to take better care of their health and that gourmet cooks advocated the use of natural products to ensure better taste. Yet, despite all these growth drivers, natural foods have barely penetrated their markets. Since natural foods account for only 2.5 percent of the total food market, natural goods still have a great deal of potential, Wanetick emphasized.

Indeed, as the 20th century drew to a close, mainstream customers were moving in unprecedented numbers into the natural products channel, according to trends in the natural marketplace reported in the December 1999 issue of Natural Foods Merchandiser. Uppermost in the minds of these consumers was the concept of whole healthan aggregation of many different lifestyle and shopping choices into a self-directed program of healthful living. From its earliest days of operation under predecessor Cornucopia Natural Foods, United Natural had seen the business potential of a focus on natural foods and related products. Because of the companys remarkable past performance and of growing consumer awareness of whole health, it was possible to assume that the difficulties United Natural experienced during the first quarter of fiscal 2000 were a temporary setback and that the company would continue to prosper.

Principal Subsidiaries

Alberts Organics, Inc.; GEM Acquisition Corporation; The Health Hut, Inc.; Hershey Imports, Inc.; Mother Earth, Inc.; Mountain Peoples Warehouse Incorporated; Natural Retail Group, Inc.; Natures Finest, Inc.; Nutrasource, Inc.; Rainbow Natural Foods, Inc.; Stow Mills, Inc.

Principal Competitors

Tree of Life Distribution, Inc.; Blooming Prairie Cooperative Warehouse; Natures Best, Inc.; Northeast Cooperative.

Further Reading

Creating Healthy Business, Sacramento Bee (California), April 20, 1996.

Esterson, Emily, United Adds Stow, Strengthens Midwest Region, Natural Foods Merchandiser, August 1997.

Granato, Heather, The Changing Distribution of Natural Foods, Organic and Natural News, November 1999.

Healthy Deals, Business News New Jersey, September 28, 1998, p. 3.

Johnson, Kelly, Merger Propels Food Firm to Top, Sacramento Business Journal, June 30, 1997, pp. 12.

Lipson, Elaine, Humble Beginnings Become Big Business, Natural Foods Merchandiser, February 1999.

Plank, Dave, Healthy Food Viewed As Key Lifestyle Choice, Natural Foods Merchandiser, December 1999.

Wanetick, David, [Speech at Natural Foods Industry Conference], November 15, 1999.

Wells, Danny, 20 Years ... and Still Going, Natural Foods Merchandiser, February 1999.

Gloria A. Lemieux

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"United Natural Foods, Inc." International Directory of Company Histories. 2000. Encyclopedia.com. 28 Sep. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"United Natural Foods, Inc." International Directory of Company Histories. 2000. Encyclopedia.com. (September 28, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2843600122.html

"United Natural Foods, Inc." International Directory of Company Histories. 2000. Retrieved September 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2843600122.html

Facts and information from other sites