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When it comes to launching a new product, installing a new production line or building a new facility, it’s imperative that all parties concerned be involved and on the same page.

Such is the case for United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), a Providence, R.I.-based independent national distributor of natural, organic and specialty foods.

UNFI’s story begins in the 1970s when consumer interest in natural foods began to blossom. Small regional distributors were established to meet the needs of this growing market. For example, Michael Funk started Mountain People’s Warehouse in 1976 out of the back of his Volkswagen van before there was even a legal definition of what organic meant. Meanwhile, Norman Cloutier opened Cornucopia Natural Foods, a small retail store that later converted into a warehouse for wholesale distribution. The company grew and acquired several other distributors, including Rainbow Natural Foods, a small cooperative. In 1996, Cornucopia and Mountain People’s Warehouse merged, forming UNFI.

In the years following the merger, other regional distributors joined UNFI, including Stow Mills, natural foods store Good Life in Vermont and Blooming Prairie, a Midwest distributor of organic and natural products.

Today, UNFI distributes dry, refrigerated and frozen groceries as well as perishables and fresh produce, among other non-food items, from 18 centers throughout the United States and Canada. It also provides marketing, promotions, merchandising, category management and store support services for retailers and manufacturers.

“UNFI has exhibited substantial growth due to the ever-increasing organic market demand,” says Tim Nguyen, regional vice president of ESI Group USA (ESI). “The current regional distribution centers operating by UNFI are at full capacity, transportation logistics are reaching boundary limits and reserves for new business opportunities are limited. In particular, the Midwest market has played an integral part of that growing market, which prompted UNFI to build a brand new distribution center to meet that demand.”

As a result of the company’s continuous growth, UNFI turned to ESI to construct a 450,000-square-foot facility in Sturtevant, Wis. The project began in January 2013 and will be fully operational in April 2014. The facility is mostly constructed of insulated metal panels, which provide an integral system consisting of vapor barrier metal skin and foam-in-place urethane insulation.

“This material is efficient, affordable and flexible for maintaining the required interior refrigerated temperatures in a versatile climate such as Wisconsin,” says Nguyen.

In addition, the cascade refrigeration system utilizes ammonia and CO2 as refrigerants, which has proven to be the most efficient system for UNFI. Also, the facility is pursuing Gold LEED certification with the U.S. Green Building Council. Additional projects are in progress in Montgomery, N.Y., Gilroy, Calif., and Prescott, Wis.

“UNFI’s growth pattern requires a partnership from all suppliers, vendors and consultants that are willing to be committed in a successful long-term relationship,” says Nguyen. “This requires firms such as ESI to make early investments to establish long-term benefits. ESI is not a contractor that is looking strictly from a perspective of a project-to-project basis; there are long-term benefits in providing planning, ongoing design, value engineering and consultation services, which enable a better quality facility that UNFI wants for all their facilities.”

— Authored by Tim Nguyen, Regional Vice President of ESI Group USA