Food City Executive
Is Featured Speaker
At Noon Meeting
Of Exchange Club
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Once upon a time, customers walked into their local grocery store seeking out the lowest prices for the quantity needed and went home to cook their meals.
Today, the average customer dashes into the store looking to grab the fastest and the easiest solutions to a family dinner and a week's worth of snacks.
Few would guess what Jesse A. Lewis, of Piney Flats, says is the number one item sold in the food industry in 2013 -- convenience.
Lewis is the senior vice president and chief operations officer of K-VA-T Food Stores, Inc. (Food City) and is president of Misty Mountain Spring Water Company.
He was the guest speaker during Tuesday's noon meeting of the Greeneville Exchange Club.
Regarded as "one of the last of the original 'ole grocers" by an associate, Lewis has been involved in the food industry since January 1958.
'THE FOOD MIRACLE'
On Tuesday, he told the Exchange Club that he began by working at a grocery store in Mississippi and has held a wide variety of food industry positions ever since.
"The great thing is, he went from stock clerk to chairman of the board to chief executive officer," retired K-VA-T Bob Southerland said during his introduction of Lewis.
Upon taking the podium, Lewis presented a proclamation from state legislators in honor of Southerland.
Beginning his address, Lewis described the United States food industry as "probably the greatest industry in the world."
"It border-lines on being a miracle," he said. "We feed the people of our country with the best supply of food -- the healthiest, the safest -- and we do it at less of their spendable income [than] of any country in the world."
All these accomplishments are both because of and despite being one of the most highly regulated industries, Lewis noted.
"I think it's great that the food industry is regulated the way it is because it is about the food," he said.
"[However,] some of the regulations are a little difficult. They create some real challenges for our farmers."
Today's supermarket has to work with not only the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but also the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. and state departments of agriculture, and numerous other organizations commonly involved in business.
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture is pretty interesting," Lewis noted. "They're redoing all the school lunches, taking out all the fryers and putting in ovens."
Other changes include removing sugar, soft drinks and salty snacks from the vending machines, he said.
"At the same time, the same government agency gives over 47 million people $137 a month, and they can take it to the supermarket and spend it most any way they want to," he noted.
K-VA-T's success over the years has derived from the founder's principles of honesty, integrity and a focus on what Lewis said are the two "most important people" for the company -- the customer and the associate.
He noted times when the company chose to make honest announcements about safety or to dispose of questionable foods when others kept selling them.
The company has also shifted with the industry to add gaoline station, and those, he said, demanded "convenient" products.
"The food industry has brought groceries to the table at the very best price that can possibly be done," he said.
Lewis also took some time describing K-VA-T's operations, including having spent about $9 million on local produce in 2012.
The K-VA-T distribution center features 1.1 million square-feet and distributes about 99 percent of everything the company sells, he said.
There are 140 drivers and about 75 trucks that make at least two trips a day.
The distribution center employs about 600 people, while the company itself employs about 13,000, he said.
K-VA-T also now features about 80 fuel operations.