#GetInHerCart’s Expert Q&A Series | Insight from Maria Reyes of Leading US Distributor, KeHE

#GetInHerCart’s Expert Q&A Series | Insight from Maria Reyes of Leading US Distributor, KeHE

We are launching a new blog series called #GetInHerCart Expert Q&A. This series of blog posts will connect us with some of our favorite industry experts who share our curiosity for how consumers around the world shop for natural products and what makes brands succeed in reaching them.

This first in the series features a Q&A with Maria Reyes, Director of Category Management at leading national distributor, KeHE, with the corporate office based in the Chicago area. If you sell olive oil in the USA, you’ve likely heard of, or know Maria Reyes. She’s someone I’ve known for several years and is an expert whose opinion I value. She also works for an outstanding company, KeHE, one I’ve been privileged to work with and a distribution partner to so many of the brands Green Purse PR represents.

Focused on premium, not processed extra virgin olive oil, Maria has helped bring to market and build brands like, Lucini, Colavita and Gaea back when these brands were first launched and are now rock stars of the specialty food industry and olive oil category. Most recently, Maria is focused on launching new and artisanal brands from Sicily, as well as Spain, the largest producer of olive oil in the world.

Continue reading below for our recent Q&A interview with Maria, and thanks for reading our blog, #GetInHerCart.

— Lisa Mabe-Konstantopoulos, Founder & CEO, Green Purse PR

Maria Reyes, Director Category Management at KeHE Distributors

Maria Reyes, Director Category Management at KeHE Distributors

Specialty food products that #GetInHerCart. Some of the products Maria purchases for her own home

Specialty food products that #GetInHerCart. Some of the products Maria purchases for her own home

Maria’s tips for getting (and staying) on shelves:

  • Know your market

  • Know your shopper

  • Determine your strategy & budget

  • Offer up your expertise to retail customers and when possible, consumers

  • Hire the right team & work with the right partners to help grow your brand and execute your strategic growth plan

Q. Before launching into a new grocery retailer, brands should be doing this__________before they launch.

A. “You’ve got to study and understand the market – the retail landscape and determine where your product fits in.”

Maria suggests:

  • Obtaining data on your product category, as well as your target shopper (category snapshot reports and shopper research, like interviews and shop-alongs.)

  • Developing a strategic plan (to include competitive shelf price, consumer advertising, social media, etc.)

  • Realistic budget for marketing and promotional activities.

  • Determining where you’re best suited for your launch (i.e. West Coast or East Coast, specialty grocery vs. natural channel, etc.)

  • Narrowing down your target retail accounts & ensuring you have the proper funding to support each of them via discounts, demos & consumer education.

Q. When we use the phrase ‘understand the shopper,’ what does that really mean? What specifically should brands be studying to understand their retail customers’ shoppers?

A. Who are the feet walking in the store, what are they looking for, and ultimately walking out with?”

Maria suggests:

  • Identifying the types of shoppers already primed to find your key claims of value.

  • Understand where shoppers learn about products in your category.

  • Identify what drives shoppers to purchase (price, format, quality, etc.) in the category you play in. This is called a “consumer decision tree.”

  • Learn how those products are used at home.

Q. Specialty food categories like olive oil (also wine, honey, cheese, etc.) can be overwhelming and confusing for consumers, unless they are experts. Do you have any examples of brands and/or retailers doing a good job of educating shoppers in stores or online?

A. Maria says that Cobram Estate (California & Australian olive oils) Gaea from Greece and BONO from Sicily, Italy, are excellent examples of marketing partners in that they work to educate consumers online and in stores.

Maria added that she had recently attended an education event at Cobram Estate’s office in Woodland, California for their retail partners and noted that programs to up level olive oil knowledge of retail partners is equally important to consumers as well.

Maria says there are some excellent olive oil experts around the world, like: Leandro Ravietti Techincal Director at Boundary Bend Australia, Dean Wilkinson, Head Panel Taster at the California Olive Oil Council, Dr. Mary Flynn from Brown University, Alexanda Diverini, Founder of The Extra Virgin Alliance and David Neuman, founder of the EVOO Guy. These are all professionals in the industry and great at helping educate key decision makers, consumers, and have also helped Maria over the past few years gain her olive oil knowledge.

One challenge Maria noted as it pertains to olive oil education is that “some retailers lack the infrastructure and time to properly educate themselves in order to help educate consumers in their stores,” and noted that categories like extra virgin olive oil and Manuka honey, are examples that should have more in-store education so shoppers can understand these products are unique and generally cost more.

Opportunity for brands to more closely collaborate with retailers to educate shoppers on premium categories, like olive oil, honey and wine.

“Consumers are more educated than they have been in the past, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement by both brands and retailers to educate consumers in premium categories."

— Maria Reyes of KeHE

Example of educating shoppers about Manuka honey inside Rockridge Market Hall in Oakland, California

Example of educating shoppers about Manuka honey inside Rockridge Market Hall in Oakland, California

Q. Just because a producer thinks they have an outstanding product, does not necessarily mean it’s going to do well at market. In addition to having a great-tasting, good quality product, what else is required to be successful in a crowded category, like olive oil?

A. “Money, time, patience, hard work and grit.”

Maria adds exposure such as, top tier media placements like, O the Oprah Magazine and Bon Appetit as well as awards, like, The Specialty Food Association’ Sofi Awards and the New York International Olive Oil Competition, can carry a lot of weight when building brand recognition and gaining exposure with retailers and often the consumers as well.

Source: | Example Maria shared of Lucini getting into O the Oprah Magazine

Source: | Example Maria shared of Lucini getting into O the Oprah Magazine

Q. When launching a new product (and new brand) at grocery retail, what are some of the must-haves?

A. “They need to have proper labeling, a national sales manager or regional sales team. If they don’t have someone here to help guide them step by step and develop a certain level of consistency, they’re going to potentially fail and often spend substantial capital. Another must have is having product inventory in the USA, that shows your commitment to the market.” Maria says that one way for brands from outside the USA can demonstrate that commitment is either working with an importer (who distributors like KeHE would be buying from,) or in some cases even opening up their own US corporation with their own warehouse (acting as the importer themselves) to service their American customers.

Maria has worked with several brands coming from outside the USA who produce the number one selling product in their country and they expect that they’ll also be the number one here in America. These types of high expectations come with the assumption that they’ll automatically have volume, expecting to sell by full imported container load, which is not always possible in the beginning and often takes several years to grow into.

Q. Are there any specific niches within olive oil where there is still some room to shine?  

A. “Yes. Demand for quality olive oil is increasing and supply is declining, except in Spain.” Currently Maria is focused on bringing olive oil from quality Spanish producers on board and taking full advantage of the current trend toward healthy fats, citing olive oil as “the healthiest fat of all, period.”  Maria recommends high quality extra virgin olive oil brands leverage the healthy fat positioning currently trending with consumers.

Another opportunity to shine is in product size. Maria says she is looking to market olive oil products in 250 ml (8.5 oz) format instead of just the typical 500 ml (16.9 oz) sizes. “Smaller bottles means less oil, which makes them less expensive and gives a lower retail price. That translates into more retail sales and allows consumers to be more adventurous with new products.”

Maria visiting olive oil producers in Spain

Maria visiting olive oil producers in Spain

Spanish olive oil products on retail shelves in Spain

Spanish olive oil products on retail shelves in Spain

Q. Are there any brands, countries or country promotion boards that do an outstanding job of telling their provenance story here in the USA?

A. “The Made in Italy brand protected by the Italian government through the Italian Trade Commission.” Maria also added that ancient cultures like Spain, Italy and Greece have a big advantage in telling a provenance story with the Italians being the best and most experienced at it.

Maria exploring Tuscan region with Bellucci

Maria exploring Tuscan region with Bellucci

Italy 3 Tuscan Region-Bellucci.jpg
Italy 6 Tuscan Region-Bellucci.jpg

Q. If a specialty food brand suddenly had an extra $10k, $20k, $50k or even $100k USD to spend on consumer marketing, where would you likely recommend they invest it?

A. “Getting the right story/messaging and certifications on their product packaging and tying that story/message back to current trends taking place here in America. Getting the right message and telling their story within their labels is a must.”

Maria ads that “social media exposure is a given, but don’t forget that there is a substantial value of both paid and earned media exposure.”

Source:  | Example Maria shared of GAEA from Greece’s on a billboard in Times Square, New York City during the Fancy Food Show.

Source: | Example Maria shared of GAEA from Greece’s on a billboard in Times Square, New York City during the Fancy Food Show.

What Maria reads to keep up with food trends:

Consumer media: Clean Eating, Bon Appetite, Food & Wine & Saveur.

Trade media: Supermarket News, Olive Oil Times, Olive Wellness Institute, Specialty Food News, Nosh Newsletter, New Hope Network, Gourmet Retailer, Food Navigator & GMA Smart Brief.

Maria has a wealth of insight into the specialty food and olive oil categories, and she loves sharing it, which is why she is one of our favorite experts. Follow Maria on LinkedIn here, where she frequently publishes news, insight and commentary on the olive oil category and specialty food trends.

Brands whose strategy match a national distribution model and are interested in partnering with KeHE should inquire online here,

You can also connect with KeHE on social media: Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram & Facebook.


View more of Maria’s travels from around the world speaking at olive oil industry events and visiting with olive oil producers from countries like, Australia, Spain, Greece and Italy.