It may only take a few minutes at a Kwik Trip location to grab some bananas, but meticulous timing perfected over decades puts that yellow fruit in 440 stores spread across Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
The bananas’ trip starts in South America and heads through the Gulf of Mexico to Texas, where it is offloaded to tractor trailers and shipped to Kwik Trip’s distribution center in La Crosse, said Brad Clarkin, warehouse superintendent at the center.
They linger there in the facility ripening before being sent to the convenience stores.
“We sold 44 million pounds of bananas last year,” he said, explaining that controlling the ripening process helps ensure freshness.
The La Crosse-based Kwik Trip, which tallied sales of $5 billion for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, was founded in 1965 in Eau Claire and now employs 11,400 people. One of its keys to success is vertical integration, meaning Kwik Trip produces many of its own commodities, Clarkin said.
“We have the dairy, the kitchens, our bakery, our own ice cream, our own ice plant, our own beverage plant,” he said. “We have products produced today that will be on store shelves tonight.”
“At 4:30 a.m., this was a bun, meat and cheese,” Clarkin added as he grabbed a beef sandwich from one of the totes in the warehouse. “Now it’s a sandwich that we can get to the store within 12 hours.”
The 360,000-square-foot distribution center, with its 240 employees, is the hub that delivers 6,300 products to Kwik Trips in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa as far out as 245 miles.
“Everything we deliver, we’re out and back the same day,” Clarkin said.
Deliveries originally began at company headquarters but moved in 1996 to a new, 110,000-square-foot distribution center nearby that has expanded to its current size with more cooler/freezer space, grocery space and ice plant, including a 150,000-square-foot addition this year.
As many as 145,000 units a day depart from the center, Clarkin said, adding that special offers often multiply orders.
“We delivered 1.2 million dozen eggs during a two-week promotion last spring,” he said. “We have the understanding that people are going to go to the grocery store once a week, but we want to be that middle stop and continue to grow that role.”
Kwik Trip owns and maintains its own trucks, having acquired Convenience Transport-ation as a subsidiary in 1999. The fleet includes 67 petroleum trucks hauling fuel, 45 grocery trucks and 25 fresh trucks, Clarkin said.
The company also uses a computerized warehouse management system to provide tracking for each item, from its receipt at the facility to its departure.
“You know what goes to what store,” he said. “You really have to choreograph each day’s activities.”
The main choreographer, Clarkin said, is company owner Don Zietlow, who worked himself up from being a truck driver to president of Gateway Foods before coming to Kwik Trip.
“It was his vision that really got us here,” Clarkin said. “The offerings at our stores reflect his grocery experience.”