Amy's Kitchen: 'We’ve had explosive, unprecedented growth, but it’s also been the year of what could have been...'

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Karen Jobb: ‘It's been a lot about rebuilding relationships with our customers and consumers and helping everybody understand that we are in catch up mode…’ Image credit: Amy's Kitchen
Karen Jobb: ‘It's been a lot about rebuilding relationships with our customers and consumers and helping everybody understand that we are in catch up mode…’ Image credit: Amy's Kitchen

Related tags: Amy's Kitchen, plant-based, COVID, COVID-19, pandemic

When COVID-19 hit, Amy’s Kitchen – best known for its frozen pizzas, burritos, entrees and shelf-stable soups – ticked all the right boxes for ‘pandemic cuisine,’ says chief customer and consumer officer Karen Jobb. It makes convenient, healthy, restaurant-quality food ideal for freezer- and pantry-loading. The problem was, it just couldn’t keep up with demand.

2020 and into 2021 have been extraordinary for Amy's, so much so that it has been about 17 months of trying to catch up,” ​said Jobb, who joined Amy’s in March to head up sales and marketing after 16 years at Clif Bar in a variety of senior roles.

“When I joined, service levels were at an all-time low,” ​she told FoodNavigator-USA. “Take our cheese enchilada, which everybody associates with Amy's. If you look at per-SKU velocity for 2021 versus 2019, we’re up 40%, and that's with, at times, fill rates in the 50s.

“We’ve had explosive, unprecedented growth; we're talking in the hundreds of millions in terms of growth that was realized but also hundreds of millions of what could have been, so ​it’s also been the year of what could have been. But in 2022, we are poised for significant growth.”

'It's been about rebuilding relationships with our customers and consumers and helping everybody understand that we are in catch up mode'

Like many brands dealing with elevated demand during the pandemic, Amy’s rationalized its SKU count (from 216 products to 136) to focus on top sellers and streamline operations, she said. It also stayed in constant contact with customers to manage expectations.

 “We have been communicating with our customers every month. In our last communication, we signaled that on frozen entrees, we expect to be recovered by November, and we anticipate being recovered on pizza by September. For soup, we have recovered, and we are gearing up for the biggest soup season ever; we’re filling all the distribution voids and we’re selling in five new soups.

“The next step is to start reintroductions, but to be very intentional about what we reintroduce; it's been a lot about rebuilding relationships with our customers and our consumers and helping everybody understand that we are in catch up mode.”

San Jose pizza plant ramping up production; construction on Goshen NY plant starting summer 2022

Currently, Amy's operates production facilities in Santa Rosa, California; Pocatello, Idaho; and Medford, Oregon; with a new plant in San Jose that’s just starting to ramp up (pizza), and a second new plant due to come online in Goshen, NY, in early 2023 (entrees), said Jobb.

At San Jose, we’re almost doubling production each week, so we're very excited that San Jose is going to be critical for our recovery, it's just been a little slower getting ramped up due to labor​ [challenges] and also just bringing up a brand new facility during COVID has been challenging.”

She added: “Our goal is to retain consumers​ [that Amy’s gained during the pandemic] and convert them into loyal consumers, and then to continue telling our Amy's story in order to acquire even more households and consumers, particularly in Millennial and Gen Z ​[demographics].”

Amys products August 2021

Amy's Kitchen​ was founded in 1987 in Sonoma, California, by Andy and Rachel Berliner, who named the business after their daughter, Amy. The first products - pot pies - were followed by burritos and mac & cheese. Pizzas were added in the 1990s, along with soups, beans, and chili. A wide range of gluten-free products joined the portfolio in the early 2000s followed by candy bars in the 2010s. Today the company also makes a wide range of frozen bowls and entrees inspired by cuisines from all over the world.

Currently, Amy's operates production facilities making vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free products in Santa Rosa and San Jose, California; Pocatello, Idaho; and Medford, Oregon; with a new plant to come online in Goshen, NY in early 2023.

Amy’s started out in the natural channel, and has since built up strong distribution in grocery and mass, while there are also big opportunities in the club, drug, convenience, foodservice, and e-commerce channels, says Jobb.

Currently, most of Amy's vegetables, grains, and beans are organic.  

'Andy [Berliner] knows everything there is to know about every nut and bolt, every piece of equipment...'

Asked about recent changes at the top at Amy’s, with CEO Xavier Unkovic departing in late April, and co-founder Andy Berliner (who had been operating as executive chairman) reprising his role as CEO, Jobb said: “Andy is really passionate about the manufacturing and the making of the foods.

“Andy knows everything there is to know about every nut and bolt on every piece of equipment, so just getting his energy back into the facilities and walking around and knowing the people, really bringing that family feel back in, has brought us back down into that startup mentality, getting really scrappy, problem solving, being very nimble and pivoting quickly.

“Andy also has such a wealth of knowledge and stories about where we've come from and sometimes when you're struggling in the moment, his leadership to tell those stories about when there were a lot of challenges and growth can help rally everybody around the common vision.”

The marketing strategy

As for marketing, it’s something that for obvious reasons has been on the backburner in recent months given the fact that the company has been struggling to keep up with demand, but will definitely come to the fore as Amy’s starts firing on all cylinders again later this year, said Jobb.

Amy's is a brand with such a great story… there's so much rich history here, also there’s so much to talk about from a sustainability standpoint, and around our commitment to organics, which ​[she says really resonates with] Gen Z and millennials.

“On the flip side, it is hard to focus on that ​[when your fill rates are sub-optimal]," she said. "In the beginning, we were posting a lot of things on social media, which was very exciting, but we got a lot of blowback, ‘Hey you're telling all these great stories but the products aren’t on the shelf...’

“So we've been a little more intentional in this last year and focused on the things that we're doing in the community. But now, we’re just starting to turn on the food and the product stories. I have just hired Ritu Mather, who has been leading the LUNA brand at Clif Bar, who will join us as VP of product and consumer marketing at the end of the month to build out a consumer engagement strategy.

“So 2021 is all about rebuilding our credibility and trust with retailers and our consumers and then we can really start telling those rich stories in a meaningful way.”

amys pizza
Amy's has just opened a new pizza production facility in San Jose (picture: Amy's Kitchen)
Amy's Kitchen entrees
Karen Jobb: 'Consumers are looking for restaurant-quality healthy food they can cook at home...' Image credit: Amy's Kitchen

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