As her 2-year-old son played with a pint-size shopping cart and a bottle of Kidfresh brand bottled water, Renee Sheppard browsed an assortment of all-natural boxed lunches.
Sheppard is raising her son on a vegetarian diet. So as soon as she saw a Kidfresh flier in her apartment building, she was eager to see what the New York City food retailer has to offer.
“Nutrition is so important to me and my family, so I was interested in coming here,” Sheppard told SN.
Providing better-for-you food and beverages to the very young, ranging from babies to 10-year-olds, Kidfresh opened its doors last month at a 1,500-square-foot store on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Founder and Chief Executive Officer Matt Cohen already has ambitious expansion plans, including an additional three Manhattan units; an online store; and other forms of distribution, including kiosks in high-traffic business and recreational areas.
“Kidfresh is much more than one store and one distribution channel,” Cohen told SN during a store visit.
Kidfresh wants to be for kids what other niche retailers — such as Starbuck's and Jamba Juice — are to their customers, according to Cohen.
“We're taking one segment — kids — and developing a line of all-natural products around that segment,” Cohen told SN.
The brick-and-mortar store is the first step. Not only are the prepared foods nutritionally balanced for different age groups, the setup is kid-friendly. Youngsters can enter the store through their very own kid-size door and then proceed to shop for themselves, thanks to low and open merchandising units.
A former Accenture management consultant, Cohen credits parenthood with the inspiration for Kidfresh. The father of two — Jonas, 6, and Hannah, 3 — was tired of the limited number of lunch-box-friendly foods that were both healthy and convenient.
“When I made my son's lunch box, I had to use processed food or I had to make it myself,” he said. “There was no alternative.”
Kidfresh is the alternative he sought, said Cohen, stressing that the concept provides busy parents with a new way to give their kids healthy meals.
“We want to be a lifestyle brand for the modern mom,” he said.
Sheppard has the time to prepare homemade vegetarian meals for her son, so she's not the typical Kidfresh customer. But even she was impressed with the product mix.
“Some vegetables, like butternut squash, take a long time to make myself, so I'm interested in the [Kidfresh] ‘sides,’” she said.
Sides are packaged and refrigerated side dishes — such as broccoli florets with homemade tomato dip or veggie sticks — that can be paired with a grab-and-go main course, such as chicken breast tenders with homemade strawberry ketchup.
As its name suggests, Kidfresh focuses mostly on freshly prepared foods. But packaged goods play an important role as well. National brands are present in the form of such items as Kashi Mighty Bites cereal and Earth's Best baby food.
Private label is also represented. Kidfresh already markets two private-label categories: bottled water and frozen baby fruits and vegetables. Eight-ounce bottles of Kidfresh water are sold for $1.25 and are sourced from Forestport, N.Y., while 4.5-ounce packages of the company-brand frozen baby food, made by Evie's Organic Edibles of Manhattan, retail for around $4.50 each. Other private-label categories are planned, including juice, yogurt and frozen baby meats.
The launch of the Kidfresh brand comes at a time when retailers are focusing more on natural and organic products. Private label is actively involved there as well, thanks to introductions like Safeway's O Organics line and Wild Oats-brand products in Price Chopper and Pathmark.
But there is still a dearth of natural private labels just for kids, said Frank Dell, president of Dellmart & Co., Stamford, Conn. Therefore, Kidfresh meets a need, he said.
Both London-based Sainsbury's and Toronto-based Loblaw Cos. have found success with private-label good-for-you lines of kids' food in their respective markets. Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets offers kid-friendly organic products, including applesauce cups, string cheese, fruit bars, baby carrots and oatmeal packs, while Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, merchandises a Whole Kids Organic line of items at its stores. H.E. Butt Grocery Co. also markets private-label lines just for kids.
Customers can buy the Kidfresh private labels as a complement to Kidfresh's ample assortment of boxed breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks; all are free of artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, additives and trans fats. Organic ingredients are used wherever possible.
“A parent may feel that buying a Kidfresh product makes a statement, and shows that they really care about their kids and that they're willing to get products just for them,” said Dell.
Developed with input from Sharron Daltan, a pediatric nutritionist, the boxed meals are nutritionally balanced and color-coded for three different age groups: orange for 1- to 2-year-olds; red, 3- to 5-year-olds; and green, for ages 6 to 10. A complete lunch, which includes a main dish such as a sandwich, plus a side, a drink and a dessert, sells from about $6.75. Each lunch contains either Kidfresh water or an all-natural juice, such as Earth's Best.
Along with being all-natural, the grab-and-go assortment is kid-friendly in other ways. For instance, sandwiches are cut into fun shapes, such as a hand, while the ready-to-eat pizza looks like a smiley face. Likewise, boxed meals contain either scratch cards or stickers that can be collected and redeemed for rewards, such as a free ice cream.
“We try to incorporate the kids' language into the products,” Cohen said.
Take-home meals are certainly emphasized, but Kidfresh also wants customers to dine in. In the front of the store is counter service, where kids can select a fun-shaped sandwich, all-natural ice cream, a fruit kabob or other healthy fare. Parents can get food as well, including entrees like grilled chicken salads and fruit salads. Booths and chairs are available in the back.
Another way the retailer gets patrons to stick around is with an eight-week cooking program for kids.
“Empowering children is a critical part of who we are,” said Gilles Deloux, co-founder and chief marketing officer. “We want to get kids involved.”
So much so that Kidfresh plans to run a contest in which kids can create a recipe of their own, and then vote for which one is best. The winning selection will be sold at Kidfresh.
“A kid jury will decide which item will be sold on our shelves,” said Deloux, a former Dannon marketing executive.
Kidfresh also plans to run special events once a month in which a nutrionist will be on site to answer parents' questions.
The launch of Kidfresh comes at a time when about 10 million school-age children in the United States — about 18% — are considered overweight. This puts them at greater risk for adult heart disease and diabetes and lower life expectancy in general.
Growing concern about childhood obesity has prompted some traditional food retailers, such as Hannaford Bros., to create in-store signage designating healthy foods.
But it's surprising that traditional supermarkets haven't yet catered to kids the way Kidfresh is, according to Neil Stern, senior partner, McMillan-Doolittle, a Chicago-based retail consulting group. “[Kidfresh] identified a gap in the market,” he said.
Still, Stern questions whether parents will make an extra stop to get their kids healthier meals.
“The concept definitely makes sense, but can you build an entire store around it?” he questioned.
The fact that Kidfresh is looking at online sales and other distribution channels could help it overcome that hurdle, Stern noted.