In Their Words - Keith Johnson, Early Organic Produce Retail Explorer
Keith Johnson, Western Regional Manager, Kroger/Wesco, leaves for an exciting new next chapter in his produce career today. OPN caught up with Keith to bid him a fond farewell and talk about his amazing 35-year pathway to success.
Tonya Antle for OPN Connect: Keith, what lead you to your career in the produce industry?
Keith Johnson: Actually, I’m not sure many people know that I come from a produce background. My story starts with my grandfather, and his father and his four brothers. They owned the Chico Banana Company on the old Chicago market back in the 40’s and 50’s.
Tonya Antle: Did your dad also follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps?
Keith Johnson: My father, Art Johnson, was an amazing man of strong core values and business principals. For college, my dad went to Missouri State and was All-American in basketball. To make money during school, he started inspecting railcars of bananas for my grandfather, then following graduation, he ended up coming home to Chicago and working in the family business at Chico Banana before starting his own career path with Jewel Foods.
Also, not many know this either, my dad started as a produce buyer and then a merchandiser and finally as a vice president at Jewel. He actually was the person who started the buying group, JEBS – Jewel, Eisner, Buttrey & Star . I know many know Richard Camp and assume he started JEBS, but It wasn’t him, it was my dad.
Tonya Antle: What was your first produce job?
Keith Johnson: My first job in produce was during high school. We were living in Irvine. I worked for John Hubbard, who started Irvine Ranch Markets. He liked kids who played sports and so I worked in his first store, off the Santa Ana Freeway, during the summer and on weekends. From there, I went to Saddleback Junior College before Cal Poly, SLO. During the summers, I got into swamping produce and working for the local #630 union with United Melon. I un-loaded watermelons first, which wasn’t a fun job but paid well. Then I got smarter and started unloading trucks at Fazio’s for my dad. Back then you’ve got to remember, everything at shipping point was floor-loaded and we had to palletize it at the receiver. The good news was, I was in the best shape of my life!
Tonya Antle: Hand loading and hand palletizing wow, does that take us back to the slip sheet era?
Keith Johnson: Yes, I’m dating myself here, potatoes and onions were slip sheet. The only thing on pallets at that time were honeydews. Nothing else was. The benefit was that I got to see a lot of product that way as I would tell my father what looked good and what did not.
Tonya Antle: Then came Cal Poly?
Keith Johnson: While I was going to Cal Poly, SLO, I was still working in the summers and someone asked if I’d help unload watermelons. It was at Safeway and I met a man named Bob Edwards, who told me to call him after college if I ever wanted a job. He was in charge of all of Southern California’s field buying offices. After school, I called him and ended up interviewing with Gary Hagopian in Santa Maria. He wasn’t easy to talk to, but Gary and Safeway gave me my start in 1981. I was then told I’d have to move to Bakersfield for a promotion to buyer. Instead, I started looking around for another job and got hired by Kroger in Coachella. I started my inspecting career in Coachella with grapes, citrus and all vegetables.
Tonya Antle: What’s so great about your story is that your produce career truly starts from the ground up. What was your next move?
Keith Johnson: In 1982, I was an inspector and then made the move to Fresno in 1983 and I started buying grapes. My career started to build from buyer to managing the fruit department in 1992, then the vegetable department and then becoming an assistant area manager. And in 2005 I became Western Regional Manager. My territory covers the Fresno, Wenatchee, McAllen and Los Angeles offices. Harlan Ewert, is my counterpart in the east out of Blue Ash.
Tonya Antle: How have you seen transactional sales in produce change over the years?
Keith Johnson: When I first started buying, the sellers where true students of their commodity and the segment of the industry. The best salesperson knew the commodity better than anyone else and more than that, had passion for what they did. Today, unfortunately, the passion is not there in most cases and once a salesperson takes the order, they think they’re done. But there’s a lot of follow up that still needs to be done. Everyone is in their own silo. There’s no connection today like there used to be.
Tonya Antle: You were among the first retail explorers buying organics how did this start?
Keith Johnson: There was a consumer in our Livonia, Michigan division that demanded I buy her organic grapes. So, each year I made sure she kept well stocked, that was the beginning of organics at Kroger. The consumer will always dictate what retailers do today. They’re our customer. We see a lot of that today with 84.51, our data & loyalty program. It’s amazing what technology and loyalty programs do to tell us about what customers’ needs are from what they’re buying.
Tonya Antle: Are organics a top focus for Kroger?
Keith Johnson: Absolutely. I saw an article that Costco did over $4 billion and Kroger is very close to that. Just with the ‘Simple Truth’ brand, we’ve done over $1.2 billion and $30 million a week in produce alone. Costco’s a great operator and you’re seeing more organic there than ever.
Tonya Antle: Do you see that same Costco shopper also in Kroger stores?
Keith Johnson: Yes. There’s a “cross-over shopper” who shops at Costco 1.5 times per month and is also shopping once a week at Kroger. To help move the organic needle at Kroger, we started segregating & by pushing lower/slower volume items like chard, leeks, and rainbow carrots into organic first by eliminating conventional which set the organic stage. Now we need to focus in on having more organic items only, then filling in with conventional on those we can’t get organic, if we are to continue this growth trend.
Tonya Antle: Whole Foods states that at least 50 percent of their produce is organic at any one time. What would you say Kroger’s is peak of summer average?
Keith Johnson: 30 percent. Top items are blueberries, spinach, apples, carrots, bananas, grapes, salad mix, and strawberries. Those are the big items that drive sales in both organic and conventional and we’re double-digit growth every year.
Tonya Antle: What do you think the produce department is going to look like in the future?
Keith Johnson: There is going to be a dramatic change in the future. I think it’s going to be way more organic and way more local. If you can get both, it’s even better. Everyone is looking for a healthier lifestyle. I think the center aisle product in the store will either be bought online or it’s going to be eliminated completely. Who is going to buy canned corn? Nobody is going to want all that processed food. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Millennial or what your generation is. There will be much more perishable in the future. I think you’re going to see stores cycling back to smaller formats like there used to be. The box stores will still exist, but I think everybody should be fearful of Sprouts, Trader Joe's and Aldi’s because they’ve got the right model. Also, look at Trader Joe’s and Sprouts format. Where’s their center aisle? I believe that curb-side pick-up will also be big in the future. People will always need to look, smell and feel fresh produce, meat, bakery and deli. It’s an impulse buy.
Tonya Antle: Do retailers really track everything consumers purchase?
Keith Johnson: Absolutely. We worked with Dunnhumby before most everyone else, now called 84.51. But we only send digital coupons for items you buy, not the alternative. We have a store in Seattle called Main and Vine that looks a lot like a Whole Foods and they had planned to only carry organics, but they’re changing somewhat. I do know Kroger will have stores in the future that will look like the smaller organic market. You can check it out online here.
Tonya Antle: Let’s switch gears, what does the next chapter look like for you?
Keith Johnson: I’m going to work for two companies both in business development and do not compete – Fowler Packing and Bee Sweet Citrus. Fowler Packing is a major player in the grape deal with about 4.5 million to 6 million packages annually. Bee Sweet is the third largest citrus supplier with an exceptional variety program.
Tonya Antle: Do they have organic offerings?
Keith Johnson: Absolutely, Fowler has a small amount but within the next few years will have a substantial amount, but Bee Sweet is one of the larger organic farming operations in the citrus industry and I like to say that we helped push them into it. They’re big on all citrus ,mandarins and have other exotic varieties like the gold nugget, cara cara, blood oranges and many others.
Tonya Antle: After 35 years, you are leaving quite a mark on Wesco and Kroger? What is your legacy? What do you want to be known for when people reflect on your career?
Keith Johnson: I look at that a little differently. It’s not as much how I want to be remembered, but I look at what I have done in my career through the years and what I’ve told my group. What I would say is: I like to think that I always led by hope and not by fear. Be fair & Follow the Golden rule. Every mistake that someone makes is a teaching moment. I challenge everyone here to be a student of your commodity and if you’re not passionate about what you do, you might want to think about changing your career.
While the “to soil or not to soil” debate rages on, does the organic community not have bigger fish to fry?
By Melody Meyer, vice president of policy and industry relations, United Natural Foods (UNFI)
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