Walker's retail business is a mix of branded consumer packs and service-case.
As in so many industries, the refrigerated deli salad business has seen its ranks thinned by the forces of consolidation — national players getting bigger by buying local and regional suppliers.

But there are many virtues to remaining local/regional and relatively small, and one company that hasn’t been swept up in the consolidation wave, North Kansas City, Missouri-based Walker’s Fresh Foods, is thriving in the space. And, after a history devoted primarily to foodservice (the company is still about 75 percent foodservice, 25 percent retail), Walker’s is making big investments in its retail game.

Through its partnership with Kansas City, Kansas-based Associated Wholesale Grocers, Walker’s has successfully slotted its Walker’s branded salads in several Kansas City area chain and independent retailers and looks to expand.

Mike Stinson

“We’ve seen a nice uptick in retail,” says Mike Stinson, Walker’s president and CEO. “We rebranded several years ago, redesigned our packaging and hired a regional sales manager who’s focused on retail. I think we’re in a position to be very scalable in an industry that’s looking for solutions.”

At or near the top of the list of those solutions Walker’s retail customers are looking for is labor. “Reducing labor, inventory and back-of-the-house complexity is a huge, hot-button topic right now,” Stinson says. As an example, if a retailer sourced potato salad from Walker’s, it might eliminate four items the retailer needed to stock in its cooler — in addition to reducing labor hours and mitigating employee and food safety risks.

Walker’s retail business is a mix of branded consumer packs and service-case. While the branded program is limited to Kansas City, Walker’s service-case salads, packed in 5- and 10-pound tubs, ship within a 500-mile radius of the city, Stinson says. Growth is probably greatest, however, in the packaged product, Stinson says. “It’s a function of where we’re focusing our efforts.”

A culture of culinary innovation

Walker’s was established in 1947 on the strength of a family potato salad recipe. Today, the company ships more than 100 refrigerated salads, sides, dips and desserts to regional retail customers and to foodservice customers nationwide, and that product mix is always evolving, Stinson says. “We’re really good at developing and launching products,” he says. “People come to us and say, ‘We’re thinking of doing this.’ That’s usually followed by several rounds of sampling and production, but we almost always hit it. We add several new items per year.”

Sriracha coleslaw was one of the new items Stinson was most excited about at the start of picnic season this year. Other recent entries include albacore tuna with egg, jalapeno queso dip and French silk mousse with chocolate chips. More general trends Walker’s is capitalizing on include ethnic flavors, grain-based salads and foods for tailgating.

The innovation cycle at Walker’s typically peaks in the colder-weather months, when employees have more time, Stinson says. By the time Memorial Day rolls around, they’re too busy focusing on meeting demand. “It’s a seasonal business,” says Stinson, a Kansas City area native who joined the company in 2012 after a career in manufacturing and product management. “No one wants to eat refrigerated salads in January and February.”

One of the keys to Walker’s success has been the close involvement of its owners, the Boyce and Faltermeier families, Stinson says. Co-owner Kyle Boyce, for instance, is the company’s chief financial officer. Another co-owner, Steve Faltermeier, is chief operations officer. “The owners/family have been very supportive of investment,” Stinson says. “They’ve put a lot of money into this facility in the past few years.”

One of the big recent changes at Walker’s under Stinson’s tenure was the revamping of its branded packaged business and the decision to change its name from Walker’s Food Products to Walker’s Fresh Foods.

The new branded containers — 12 ounces for protein salads, 1- and 3-pounders for all others — feature whimsical drawings, “stories” about the products and clever sayings. They also prominently feature Walkers’ two tag lines, post-rebrand: Happily Homemade and Simply Fresh. “Our products are never frozen, and they’re as close to what you’re going to make at home,” Stinson says. “The new packaging catches your eye and makes people pick it up, which is half the battle.”

|||READ MORE: Calling all millennials|||

Walker's is in the process of removing all high-fructose corn syrup and EDTA from its products
Calling all millennials

Walker’s isn’t shy about identifying the main audience for its rebrand. “We’re targeting millennials,” Stinson says. “They’re looking for something that’s unique and something that’s fresh, and they’re trendsetters. They’re more foodies than what we’ve seen in the past.”

As Stinson points out, potato salad, coleslaw and macaroni salad have been around for a long time. Millennials want something new and different. Foods with some color, foods with beans, foods with vinegar-and-oil instead of mayonnaise bases are among the other millennial trends Walker’s is keeping a close eye on.

And clean-label. To that end, Walker’s is in the process of removing all high-fructose corn syrup and EDTA from its products. The company expects to complete the project this summer.

Millennials add a new layer to Walker’s core of longtime customers, who stay loyal because of the company’s reputation for quality. The commitment to quality begins with something as simple as potatoes, Walker’s core product since its founding. The company cooks its spuds in steam retort ovens instead of boiling them. Steam-cooking retains nutrients better and preserves taste and texture, Stinson says.

“We pride ourselves on being one of the highest-quality suppliers,” he says. “We’re not the cheapest product on the market. We make higher-quality foods, and we’re not afraid to be ten cents higher (wholesale) per pound.” Walker’s chooses the use-by dates on its containers based on flavor, Stinson says. From a food safety standpoint, product will be still be “good” for a certain period of time after the use-by date, but Walker’s wants to make sure consumers get the best taste experience they can.

Freshness is one key to keeping that reputation for quality. And freshness doesn’t just mean the kind of ingredients used, but how quickly it gets to market. “We build to order, not to inventory,” Stinson says. “Our orders are built, shipped and on distributors’ shelves in days, guaranteeing freshness.” Finished product on the Walker’s floor typically moves out in a day or two, and it’s kept refrigerated throughout the entire supply chain.

Another crucial component of maintaining that commitment to quality, Stinson says, is operating at the highest levels of food safety. Walker’s is GSFI-certified and scored 98.65 percent on its latest audit. An onsite United States Department of Agriculture office monitors food safety compliance daily.

Walker's recent success has provided the freedom to grow at its own pace.
A local commitment

Sourcing locally also plays a big role at Walker’s, Stinson says. The company is a member of Share KC, a group of local businesses that pools their resources to purchase local products effectively. Walker’s also participates in a Kansas City area-based retail partner’s local program. The retailer ships fresh produce to Walker’s in season, which Walker’s uses to make salads sold behind the case in the retailer’s stores.

Walker’s also sources potatoes from Kansas, tomatoes for its pico de gallo and salsa from local growers and ingredients for its coleslaw from the St. Joseph, Missouri, area, Stinson says.

Walker’s has created private label programs for several of its retail grocery customers, but it’s not a growing business for the company, mainly for logistical reasons within its production plant, Stinson says. “It’s just a matter of volume,” he says. “A full equipment sanitization takes an hour and a half, and we try to minimize the down time on our equipment. If there’s not a long enough production run, it slows us down.”

Interestingly, Walker’s recent success has given it the freedom to grow at its own pace, Stinson says. “Our long-term goal is to grow, but we’ve been growing quite a bit in the last three years, to the point where we can be more selective.”

Eventually Walker’s will get a new facility, but for now, it still has room to grow in its current 29,000-square-foot building, the company’s home since 1982. Walker’s also has a second, 8,500-square-foot facility for holding refrigerated product.

Given soaring freight rates, it often makes good business sense to stay close to home, Stinson says. “If freight is adding 25 cents a pound, you’re pricing yourself out. There’s a lot of expense in transportation. Commodity prices are relatively stable — refrigerated freight is the real pain point for me.”