When you see an opportunity you need to seize it.
That was what happened with Southern California’s HiTouch Distribution in the winter of 2015 when founders Chuck Casano and Czar Daniolco saw an opening to become the natural channel’s premiere cold chain distribution network. The opening came following the demise of another area distributor, Greenshoots. Two and a half years in, the company services all 52 Whole Foods throughout the region, including parts of Arizona and Nevada, as well as other natural supermarkets such as Mothers Market, Jimbo’s, and Bristol Farms.
Casano and Daniolco have crafted a diverse portfolio of craft food and beverage brands, including Juice Served Here, Blueprint, Rebbl, Forager Project, and GT’s.
The duo also have extensive background in direct store distribution. Casano, who serves as CEO, is also the founder of dragonfruit smoothie maker Pitaya Plus, a venture that he said allowed him to work with dozens of distributors nationwide and adopt their best practices for HiTouch. Daniolco brings over 20 years of experience in grocery and beverage distribution, previously working as an account manager for Odwalla and most recently as senior director of sales and operations at shuttered California distributor Greenshoots.
Since launching, HiTouch has tripled its fleet to 11 eco-friendly Mercedes Sprinter vans and two trucks, and they put about 60,000 miles on each vehicle a year. The company is also employee owned, as the entire founding team are shareholders.
“We just saw a void in a very big market,” Daniolco said. “In SoCal, you prove innovation and you prove concept. If it’s not selling well here, where we have 300 days of sunshine and a good geography of the test for different trends, I think this is the best place to fill that void.”
Building a direct store distribution is not easy. But would anyone expect it to be? According to Casano, the first six months relied on him and Daniolco leveraging connections in the beverage industry to bring on brands. Getting enough volume on their first truck was one of the biggest hurdles early on.
But it was an early partnership with Forager Project that got HiTouch rolling. HiTouch pushed hard for the brand, which makes juices and dairy-free yogurt products, and managed to build out large and impressive sets in Whole Foods. Calling it their “marquee brand,” Casano said the team would then point to those displays as ways of recruiting other brands to their portfolio.
“Forager was one brand that really rolled the dice on our relationship and it worked out great for everyone,” Casano said. “We did everything possible to make sure that brand was looking grand on Whole Foods shelves as an example.”
Today, HiTouch’s top brands have become well established in their categories, but the company also works to build its smaller brands. Recognizing trends in the industry, Daniolco said he sees many brands across categories going toward smaller pack sizes, including the rise of juice shots. HiTouch has partnered with shot producers Vive Organic and Juice Served Here. From a distribution angle these smaller sizes can help maximize shipping space on vans.
Food products are also playing increasing role in HiTouch’s distribution, as it has brought on brands like Masienda Bodega, Elemental Superfood Bar, and MUSH.
“We never force business,” Casano said. “We’ve been really fortunate that everything has grown organically. These brands all come to us. We’re in the best market to start a natural food company, so we’re usually getting first look at these, and then we work with our partners to see what they want. We’re never going to push something down a retailer’s throat that they don’t want.”
But challenges still persist. Since HiTouch carries multiple coffees, juices, and coconut waters, cannibalization is a concern. But Daniolco said he sees it as little different than competing with outside brands and ultimately consumers will be the ones who decide what brands succeed and earn more shelf space. To that, Casano added that HiTouch focuses on maximizing brand-to-consumer contact through placement.
As for the future, HiTouch plans to dig as deep as it can in its region with little mind paid to expanding cross country. Following the trends, probiotic products and potent drinks like shots will be categories to focus on in coming months and years. Tea, Daniolco said, is also prime for innovation, as evidenced by HiTouch brand Tea Riot which combines cold-pressed juice with tea. Other recent additions to the company’s portfolio include ketogenic diet friendly brand Cave Shake and plant-based protein shake Koia.
“We’re just going to keep operating in this fresh, perishable space,” Casano said. “We’re just kind of blessed in this region that there’s so many amazing entrepreneurs and innovators in this area who naturally gravitate to us. I think if we keep executing and doing what we’re doing the brands will come.”