STOCKTON, CALIF. — When Kevin McCray was in his 20s, an autoimmune disorder upended his life. He was in and out of hospitals, and conventional medicines weren’t helping.
It was only when McCray discovered the power of a clean diet rich in whole foods and free of refined sugars that he started to feel better.
That was the origin of Kevin’s Natural Foods, which specializes in heat-and-eat meals and other foods that meet the strictest clean diet standards.
Now that Kevin’s has entered the retail grocery space, Supermarket Perimeter sat down with McCray for an exclusive Q and A on his vision and plans for his growing company.
Supermarket Perimeter: How did you decide to enter the grocery retail space?
Kevin McCray: We conducted dozens of focus groups as we were developing the offering and the brand. As we got a handle on the challenges today’s consumer faces related to food and their overall well-being, it became clear to us that if we found a way to marry three attributes – flavor, health, and convenience – we could empower people to overcome the lifestyle hurdles they faced and change their lives for the better. After we honed in on those three product attributes and decided to solve the center of the plate first, we began evaluating the best channel. Once we studied the HMR category, we knew we found our destination. We loved that it was on the perimeter of the store, where health-conscious shoppers tend to spend a lot of time, and that was already known for convenience. We also liked that there was wide open space for a brand like ours––there were no brands focusing on health and the category was lacking options that delivered big on flavor. What’s more, we were excited to partner with retailers because most of today’s grocery stores have a corporate strategy that incorporates improving the health and wellness of their customers. This value alignment has helped us foster strong partnerships that are aligned around the mission we are both us and our retail partners are passionate about.
SP: What does Kevin's offer in the heat-and-eat meal and other categories that you think is lacking at retail right now?
McCray: Unmatched meat quality, sous vide cooking, vegetables and grain-free sides and culinary flexibility and recipe inspiration.
Meat departments all over the country were adding higher quality options to their meat offerings, but we didn’t see that trend making its way to the Prepare Meals. Our goal was to change this. Kevin’s exclusively uses meat and poultry that has been raised with no antibiotics or hormones and all of our beef is 100% grass-fed and grass-finished. What’s more, consumers would tell us that one of their biggest pet peeves with the current Prepared Foods offerings was “bad bites.” We took this insight very seriously and we set up robust trim lines and quality measures to ensure we exceeded expectations in this area. Our internal motto became “no bad bites.”
Embracing sous vide cooking was a breakthrough decision for us. It is the only cooking method we could find that actually improved the quality of the meat entrées while at the same making them more convenience for the shopper to prepare at home and extending the shelf life.
The category was completely void of better-for-you sides. We entered the sides arena with low glycemic offerings like Cauli Mac & Cheese, Mashed Sweet Potatoes and Mashed Cauliflower that were free of grains, preservatives and industrial seed oils. We have recently expanded the line to include a better mashed potato. Our 5-ingredient Homestyle Mashed Potatoes are made with just potatoes, ghee, heavy cream, sea salt and black pepper. Lastly, we recently launched our first green vegetable, Brussels Sprouts with a Balsamic Glaze, which we feel will open the door to more vegetable offerings in the category.
Our entrées include both the sous-vide meats and the sauce; however, the sauce is in a separate pouch. That way, the consumer has the option to pan-sear the meat and simmer it in the sauce. This empowers them to get a nice browning on the meat and also to deglaze the pan with the sauce, which improves the quality of the finished product. This format also gives our customers the flexibility to spruce up or tailor their meal. For example, many customers add mushrooms, vegetables or herbs to the pan before incorporating the meat with the sauce that we include in the entrées. After seeing all of the recipe creations from our customers on social media, we embraced this behavior and put a focus on created recipe inspiration for our customers on kevinsnaturalfoods.com.
SP: How do you balance the need to create flavorful products with your commitment to clean, whole foods that are low in sugar?
McCray: This is the most important aspect of the Kevin’s brand. We knew before we launched that if the products taste good and delivered on our commitment to clean eating that we would have something special. Our culinary team – led by Kevin’s co-founder Dan Cota - has decades of culinary experience and Dan’s roots are in the restaurant business. We approach development as chefs, not scientist. Consequently, our standards for quality are based on restaurant flavor. We don’t let anything go to market that would not be served at a high-end restaurant. Don’t get me wrong, we established strict nutrition standard and we stick to them. However, no matter how healthy something is, it doesn’t go to market unless it tastes amazing.
SP: What has been the reception among retailers to your decision to enter retail?
McCray: Very strong. Almost every retailer we partner with has objectives around improving healthy offerings and, with Kevin’s, they have a line that helps them deliver on their own corporate missions. Additionally, the Kevin’s line has sales velocities that exceed retailers’ benchmarks and expectations making it a strategic and financial win for our partners. We have never had a retailer discontinue Kevin’s or decrease a single space allocated to Kevin’s after authorizing the products. We take great pride in that we have a 100% fill rate. We worked extremely hard throughout the pandemic to accommodate all of the rapid growth (adding over 13,000 doors in the past 2 years), while not shorting a single order no matter how challenging the environment is. We will maintain this commitment going forward.