To Go Wider in Whole Foods, Columbia Gorge Enlists UNFI and Expands HPP Offerings

CoGo_logo_1_A couple years ago, Columbia Gorge juices were sold coast-to-coast in Whole Foods stores and firmly embedded in the retailer’s thriving premium beverage set. Since that time, however, a relationship with Greenshoots Distribution, its primary wholesaler, went sour and Columbia Gorge was left without representation in most parts of the Midwest and throughout the East Coast. As a result, its presence in Whole Foods and resultant sales from its stores were greatly diminished.

While Columbia Gorge has since dramatically expanded its self-distribution operation and handles delivery of its juices along the West Coast and nearby states, the logistics of managing national coverage for the Oregon-based company remains challenging. To that end, the company recently partnered with UNFI, the nation’s largest distributor of natural foods and a preferred supplier for Whole Foods. UNFI now distributes a range of Columbia Gorge juices in Texas, Madison, Wis. and Chicago, and the brand is gradually making its way back east.

Although working with UNFI gives the company greater regional reach and access to Whole Foods shelves, the distributor’s operational strategy can sometimes mean that its juices will spend up to two weeks in UNFI warehouses, according to Columbia Gorge president Jimmy Stewart. As one of the earliest pioneers of the super-premium juice category, Columbia Gorge continues to use flash pasteurization (in which liquid is heated to 160 °F for a few seconds) for the majority of its products, which gives the juices at most a 40-day shelf life. Sitting in a warehouse for 14 of those days meant that retailers were getting product that would spoil in less than a month.

Stewart and his team decided to turn to high pressure processing (HPP) for its juices carried by UNFI. Columbia Gorge already uses the processing method for a handful of its offerings, and HPP would give the products a 90-day shelf life. Nevertheless, Stewart views the change as somewhat of a risk. Columbia Gorge says that it has done research on HPP versus flash pasteurization, and found that counter to prevailing wisdom (at least among beverage industry insiders), the heat-based method better retains flavor and nutrition for most of its juices.

“It is a little bit risky to go that route, but I think that the longer shelf life — by gaining maybe 60 days — to have a national product distributed through UNFI and other distributors on the East Coast is really the only way to do it, aside from finding a co-packer for us on the East Coast,” Stewart said.

The company uses an HPP tolling company in Portland, Ore. for processing of its UNFI-managed juice products. Columbia Gorge hopes to continue pushing eastward with UNFI and resume its status as a widely distributed brand, as it had been in 2013 when wholesale revenue peaked at $60,000 per day. Stewart said that once Greenshoots had began carrying Blueprint juices, sales of Columbia Gorge products dwindled to $20-30,000. He views Greenshoots’ decision to add Blueprint to its portfolio as a betrayal of its agreement with Columbia Gorge, something that led to an eventual lawsuit. Litigation ended with shuttering of Greenshoots, which, faced with a retreat from many of its distribution territories and massive debt to its suppliers, closed its doors earlier this year.

Notably, Columbia Gorge has since added a few of the brands that Greenshoots once carried to its self-distribution operation, called Cogo Northwest. With a fleet of 40 trucks, Cogo operates in states across the West Coast, including California, Washington and Oregon, as well as Arizona, Nevada and Idaho. In addition to Columbia Gorge juices, the distribution company carries Stumptown Cold Brew coffee (both bottles and kegs), Motto, DrKefir and Hotlips soda. Cogo recently picked up GT’s Kombucha and Health-Ade, each of which had once been a part of Greenshoots’ portfolio. Stewart said that the company is selective about brands that it adds to its trucks, but that it will continue to look for local brands to support, particularly ones that it can sell to variety of the independent stores and small chains within its network.

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Amid expanded distribution of its juices, Columbia Organic is undergoing a label revamp that Stewart calls “an authentic vintage look,” and will launch later this year. Utilizing imagery and information from areas that surround its farms in the Pacific Northwest, the company hopes to establish a sense of locality on the labels, as well as a stronger tie to family roots in the region. For Stewart, the update is represents more than just a refreshed label; it’s a stamp of the company’s continued to commitment to operate as an independently owned entity amid a super-premium juice category that is increasingly targeted for investment.