Photo: KeHE Distributors
KeHE is testing natural gas trucks in the Southern California market with five Kenworth T680s from PacLease.

KeHE relies on PacLease to distribute food across North America

Jan. 19, 2021
For the past several years, KeHE has been utilizing PacLease and a fleet of more than 550 Class 8 trucks to distribute organic, fresh, and specialty food products to more than 30,000 stores in North America.

KeHE Distributors started in 1952 as a local food distributor, and some 70 years later, the philosophies of founder Art Kehe remain.

The company is employee-owned and focused on meeting the ever-changing needs of retail and supplier partners. It also gives a portion of net profits to a separate foundation, KeHE Cares, with donations going to charitable organizations, and uses technology to stay innovative.

 Today, KeHE runs an operation with more than 5-million square feet of warehouse space within 16 North American distribution centers – 13 of which are in the U.S. It distributes organic, fresh, and specialty food products to more than 30,000 stores, with a fleet of more than 550 Class 8 trucks.

“We have a 96% overall on-time delivery rate to customers that include Safeway, Publix, Fresh Thyme, and our largest customer – Sprouts Farmers Market,” said Tom Harden, KeHE’s senior manager of fleet assets. “Our fleet of trucks, all on a full-service lease, have to be dependable – truck reliability and uptime are critical to us in meeting time-delivery windows. And we need trucks that our drivers like to drive – we want their workspace to be as comfortable as possible.”

The company finds full-service leasing attractive for a variety of purposes, particularly for the ability to have quality equipment – with maintenance provided. “We get top-of-the-line trucks without having to invest in our own shops for maintenance,” Harden said. “Leasing frees us from that.”

For the past several years, KeHE has been utilizing PacLease as part of its transportation solution. As a former driver, Harden was drawn to Kenworth equipment.

“My philosophy as fleet manager is to provide trucks that our drivers want to drive,” Harden said. “I feel our Kenworths, and how they’re spec’d with high content driver comforts, are helping us keep our drivers happy, and with KeHE for the long haul. Granted, our drivers are some of the best paid in the industry, but equipment is also very important to them. They deserve a quality truck.”

When trucks come up for replacement, Harden and the local fleet manager figure out the best solution for the region.

“Overall, we run 70% day cabs, but do run some longer hauls in certain areas, so we also lease sleeper units,” he said. “We lease from PacLease in six locations currently and are looking at expanding – we just placed 21 T680s in Atlanta.”

According to Harden, general baseline specs are determined for the fleet, and then modified for each region.

“Each area is different,” he said. “On the East Coast, they’ll see more snow, so they need a specific bumper system. Other areas are more mountainous, so we need higher horsepower and more torque. Generally, we run between 400- and 450 hp, and we’ve gone to automated transmissions – that helps with new drivers, plus helps with fuel economy. We also have recently gone with the Bendix Wingman Fusion system with side detection.”

While the Kenworth trucks have been a big hit with drivers, they’re also making an impact on KeHE’s fuel usage.

“With a fleet our size we track all the metrics. We’ve been getting a half mpg better in fuel economy with the T680s as compared to other brands we’re running,” said Harden. “That’s substantial when you consider the almost 50 million miles we ran last year. We have 720 drivers, so in some of our areas we run a slip seat (two shift) operation. It also allows us to make strides on our sustainability initiatives to reduce our emissions.”

Keeping trucks moving with minimal downtime is also a top priority. In five of the locations utilizing PacLease, the leasing company performs preventive maintenance services at KeHE distribution centers. In Chino, Calif., PacLease personnel retrieve trucks at KeHE and perform maintenance services back at its own shop.

“Truck utilization is extremely high, and the maintenance schedules don’t slow us down,” said Harden. “And, if there ever is a truck in the shop for an extended period, PacLease has us covered with a substitute vehicle program. So, we can always make deliveries.”

Technology also plays a key role in helping the company keep an eye on how everything is running. The T680s have remote diagnostics, so when a fault code that is triggered, the fleet is alerted right away, Harden said.

“Our driver can call PacLease, report the fault light, get a diagnosis, and then continue on or go to a PacLease facility for a repair,” he said. “This is a far cry from the early days when an engine light meant shutting the truck down and calling a tow truck. Increased drive time means increased efficiency and more on-time deliveries to our customers.”

Harden also noted that the Kenworths optimize static and dynamic routing for running loads.

“The goal is to max out our 53-ft. trailers. Some truckloads might go to two stores, while others might make smaller deliveries to 15 stores. Space is money – the more product we can load the better our operation,” he pointed out. “It’s a big puzzle that we have a handle on through routing software. Like with our fleet of trucks, maximum utilization is the ultimate goal.”

As a Certified B Corporation, KeHE is “legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. Harden said his transportation department is being faithful to that obligation.

“We’re developing sustainability initiatives to reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible by 2030,” he explained. “Right now, we’re testing CNG in the Southern California market with five Kenworth T680s from PacLease. We’re using only recycled natural gas, which eliminates the need for fossil fuel.”

Looking further out, Harden sees a possible match to go full electric and is talking with PacLease about electric trucks and the Kenworth T680E.

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