Former lululemon and Starbucks executive Christine Day is taking on a new industry: frozen food. I was able to connect with Day, now CEO of Luvo, a forward-thinking frozen food company, at Groceryshop last week in Las Vegas.
Luvo is a brand focused on nutrition, with products aligned with the Mediterranean diet. The brand’s products are currently in about 10,000 grocery stores in the U.S. and Canada, and is starting to work with an international distributor. Luvo carries around 20 products, mostly bowls and burritos.
Originally, Day was investing in Luvo — previously called Life Kitchen Retail — after leaving lululemon, but some of the group investors asked her to step in as CEO when it was clear the company needed her leadership. Five years later, Day has been able to turn the business around, creating a great brand story and successful business model in the process. But Day says it was the hardest thing she’s ever done.
“The hardest thing for me was not being in control of my retail environment, so doing wholesale into grocery,” Day said. “The grocery store industry is consolidating, and then you’ve got the top 10 CPG companies controlling 60 [percent], 70 [percent], 80 percent of what’s on the shelves. Scaling a small company through that is really challenging in this environment, and not being able to create the guest experience and education that I’ve been used to by controlling my own retail.”
How Day got around that challenge was by acquiring Eat Local, a retail frozen food store chain based in Seattle, last year. Day plans to revamp Eat Local’s stores to meet Luvo’s food standards while also creating the guest experience that she envisions. Luvo is also using Eat Local’s stores to test out items before commercializing them.
Day describes Luvo as food that’s medicine. One aspect the company focuses on is meals for dialysis. “Right now, there’s about a million people on dialysis,” Day noted. “And it looks like it will be close to 5 million in the next six years.” Also, all of Luvo’s meals are approved by the American Diabetes Association, and it will be one of the first brands to have that on its packaging.
Luvo’s mission hits home for Day. “The reason I invested in the company in the first place was because my mom unfortunately had end stage diabetes and lost her left leg,” Day said. “She passed away last January, but when she lost her leg, my dad had to take over more of the cooking. […] I went to the store to help him find easy-to-make meals, and I realized that national organic didn’t necessarily mean nutritious.”
Improving frozen food is what Day would call a passion project. “I’ve had a very accomplished career,” said Day. “But for me, what I do now is really about the legacy I leave. I don’t think there’s anything more important. Seventy-four percent of our healthcare dollars are spent on those four diseases [obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease].”
Day also explained that nutrition is complex, so she wants to make sure Luvo’s brand explains that. However, it’s a challenge to tell a story on a small package. “How do I put everything I know about nutrition on a package?” she asked. “[We are] creating a brand that [makes it] really aspirational to eat well, and [there is] no food shaming. There’s enough of that, especially we as women, feel bad about, and so you don’t want to put something you’re embarrassed of into your cart. […] You should be excited to eat right.”
Another challenge Luvo faces is where the health food industry stands right now.
“You use to be able to create a national organic or specialty brand, and go to Whole Foods and you could charge $70 for it because that’s what people would pay,” Day explained. “That world doesn’t really exist anymore because national and organic lanes have merged with conventional because everyone is following the standard of national organic now, so you have to be competitive and have a good margin right from the start or you’ll burn a lot of cash.”
Day noted that’s how Luvo got in trouble initially before she dug it out. “There’s some really good retail partners, and there’s some not so good retail partners. I actually downsized the business to go with more strategic partners and really invest my trade spend where it mattered — those who were committed to my story and saw what the future was.”
Like many companies, Luvo is investing in brand ambassadors to help tell its story. NFL player Russell Wilson and his wife, singer Ciara, are two ambassadors Luvo has brought on. Wilson and Luvo worked together to develop items for athletes, and Ciara helped created kid’s meals that Luvo is currently testing.