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Forever from the Start

This is not a hurry up and wait business, as I have come to understand during my short time in the industry. If anything, we are primed for movement and constantly taking the pulse of this industry.

“Every day, we are faced with a new challenge which we must quickly read and react to. Customers don’t alter their shopping lists because of a freeze in Florida, too much rain in California, or because a cross-country truck is stuck in a snowstorm,” Chris Keetch, Director, Produce and Floral, for GIANT Food Stores, LLC, shares with me as we speak of his time in the industry and what a challenge looks like on his watch. “It’s our job to make sure we do everything possible to get product to the shelf and take care of our stores and our customers.”

Chris grew up in a family of farming, ranching, and trucking members. These are his people, so this sense of urgency, maybe sleeping with one eye open, has been ingrained in him for quite some time. Chris worked on the farm until he was 20 years old before moving to Boise, Idaho, to go to college. Shortly after starting classes at Boise State, he was hired at an Albertson’s store and landed in the Produce Department.

"It's our job to make sure we do everything possible to get product to the shelf and take care of our stores and customers. "

- Chris Keetch, Director of Produce & Floral, GIANT Food Stores, LLC

“I loved it from the start and quickly saw my job becoming my career. I feel that my farming background—the long hours, attention to detail, and the constant battle with Mother Nature—helped me to easily connect with the produce industry,” Chris says.

After graduating with a Business degree in 1999, Chris was given his first opportunity as a Produce Manager, a position he held at different stores until 2008, at which point he was promoted into an Assistant Sales and Merchandising Manager role at Albertson’s headquarters in Boise.

“I ended up leaving Albertson’s in early 2010 and was recruited to Ahold USA just a few months later, joining the produce team in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in September of 2010,” he says.

Chris started as a Merchandiser and was promoted to Category Manager in late 2011. Over the following six years, Chris had the opportunity to manage commodity fruit, vegetables, and value-added desks. That experience, along with 25 years in the industry, helped lead Chris to his current role as Director of Produce and Floral for GIANT Food Stores, a company of Ahold Delhaize USA, which he assumed in January of 2018.

“This has been a very exciting and rewarding time in my journey. I am responsible for all elements of the produce and floral departments at our more than 170 GIANT and MARTIN’s stores across four states,” Chris tells me. “I love the pace of the fresh produce business. Whether I’m in a store watching a department transform from tables and cases into a work of art or in the office where we support our store and operations teams, each day is unique.”

The GIANT team believes high-quality products should tell their stories, but department layouts and display fixtures certainly help bring them to life. The company is constantly testing new concepts like fresh-squeezed juice, kombucha on tap, fresh cut-fruit stations on the sales floor, and different ways to leverage LED lighting. Earlier this year, GIANT opened a brand-new urban format in Philadelphia, GIANT Heirloom Market, where produce is featured prominently.

This is one of my favorite elements of today’s changing retail space: having fresh produce stand as the ambassador to a store. For me, it communicates all the intentions and the standards of a store’s aesthetic and core values. I can’t talk enough about the impact of giving produce the love in supermarkets and even big box stores. And, needless to say, suppliers probably feel the same way.

“We feel that the direct relationship we have with most of our suppliers helps keep GIANT well positioned to innovate and grow while protecting our supply chain in times of tight and unyielding markets,” Chris tells me.

As you can see, Chris’ passion not only comes through in the retail space but extends to the farming aspect of the business as well, where both nostalgia and a deep understanding of the industry reside.

Back Row (left to right):  Kris Sechler, Josh Geyer, Matt Novosel, Chris Keetch, Robert Backer, Travis Bowers. Front Row (left to right):  Kevin Prill, Janelle Weaver, Traci Bach, Barb Sieck,  Shanna Brownawell, Sara Goss, Joe Milter

“Growing up in agriculture helped create a passion in me for the farming end of the business,” he says. “Locally grown fruits and vegetables are a large part of our business. I look forward to every new season, especially when I have the opportunity to visit a field or an orchard, meet the families who have dedicated their lives to farming, and share with them our plans to bring the fruits of their labor to our customers.”

During Chris’ lifetime, though much of the business has stayed the same—from establishing and growing relationships to the hard work and diligence involved in cultivating the land—much has changed as well.

Trends have rapidly evolved since Chris first filled a banana display 25 years ago. The packaged salad category was only a couple of SKUs back then, organics were either non-existent or very expensive, seasonal gaps in the berry category were the norm, and the huge growth in value-added items was still years away.

"Growing up in agriculture helped create a passion for the farming end of the business"

“With the winds of change on the supply-side, customers’ tastes and demands have evolved even more rapidly. Availability of produce from around the globe, restaurants experimenting with different recipes and presentations, and the continued expansion of new items and ideas within the produce space are key signs of retailers trying to anticipate—and keep up with—customer demand and expectations,” Chris reflects. “Customers are at the heart of everything we do here at GIANT. The culture here is such that decisions are made only after we determine, ‘How does this benefit our customers?’”

In addition to overseeing the growth of the category, Chris also has the honor of leading what he considers to be the best team in the industry, with a good mix of seasoned veterans and those new to produce.

“Having that mix of experience offers the luxury of knowing how to react to challenges while still bringing in new ideas and perspectives through a different lens,” he shares.

That mix of knowledge bases lends greatly to the whole of the team and creates a firm foundation from which to address the countless elements that impact today’s produce space.

“Weather extremes have become the norm as we have consistently heard over the past several years—record heat, record rainfall, record drought, you name it. While the field crops bear the brunt of Mother Nature, I believe that’s one thing fueling the rapid growth in controlled atmosphere operations,” Chris notes. “Although not necessarily an issue in and of itself, advances in technology can help moderate some of the opportunities in the industry, but the questions come into play when deciding where and how to leverage that technology.”

From robotic harvesters to optical sorters and graders to GPS guidance systems for working the fields, efficiencies are being developed at a rapid pace.

While change can make most people dizzy, it is an area where Chris thrives. So, if not change, what keeps this produce veteran up at night?

“Replaying the day over and over in my head and wondering what I could have done better for our customers,” Chris says with a smile.

While I would wish Chris the restful sleep he deserves, I also sleep a little better at night knowing he is staying up concerned about us.