16th Annual People’s Awards

Deli Business honors individuals who have made a significant contribution to the industry, their company and their community.

Q. How has your career evolved over the years?

A.  When I was just out of college in 1995, I began an apprenticeship at Westfield Farm, a goat farm and dairy in central Massachusetts. There, I learned about animal husbandry and small-scale goat cheese production. After a year on the farm, I spent some time in retail where I learned about different types of cheeses and specialty foods and the basic principles of cheese retailing, from cleanliness and product margins to customer interactions. It was also a time of renaissance in the specialty cheese industry, and I wholeheartedly embraced the discovery of European traditions and the burgeoning American cheese making scene.

In 1997, I came to Seacrest Foods, where I am now. In my time here, I have endeavored to learn as many aspects of perishables distribution as I can. I began in sales, where my passion and product knowledge were critical in gaining trust with our customers. After some time in sales, I saw the need in our business to develop a purchasing regime that would reduce shrink and minimize shorts while keeping cash flow steady. I lobbied to hire Claire Donis, an industry veteran, to take over purchasing to allow me to pursue growth. As the business grew over the years, I repeatedly found myself in the position of being overwhelmed and then hiring to relieve the pressure. And so, I found myself learning to manage and delegate, the biggest challenges in my career. And not having any formal training in management, it was often painful.

During this time, I had created a purchasing team, a sales team and increasingly worked with operations. I took classes in accounting, economics and supply chain management to bolster my ability to meet the challenges of a growing business. Over time, I recognized that a strong commitment to customer service was a key factor to enabling growth. I saw that this could be facilitated by being a liaison between purchasing, sales and operations. As a result, I have learned about route planning, inventory management, picking rates, warehouse layout, truck leasing and much more. I have come to understand and appreciate the challenges of receiving, stocking, picking and transporting orders.

Several years ago, I was offered partial ownership in the business. As an owner, I have been able to learn about strategic planning, human resources, insurance and finance. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn so many aspects of a business in which I have invested so much of my time and passion.

Q. What positions have you held in industry associations? 

A.  Guilde du Fromage, American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional, member of the Cheese Importers Association of America, The Massachusetts Cheese Guild and Oldways Coalition.

 Q. What is your leadership philosophy?

A.  Sarcasm is the main tenet of my leadership philosophy. Just kidding. I have somewhat stumbled into leadership and, being independently minded and acutely aware of my own fallibility, I am not interested in scripting every movement of my staff. I prefer to lay out the task at hand, get input from the team and then get to work. I thoroughly enjoy bouncing ideas back and forth and am fortunate to be on a team of dedicated professionals who know their business. 

Q. What is the best advice you ever received and why? 

A.  I don’t know that I can pinpoint any specific advice. What I have observed and tried to emulate from people I have respected over the years is to always try to keep my cool. Problems are ubiquitous in perishables distribution. Working through them takes careful consideration and informed decisiveness.

Q. How do you balance your work and personal life?

A.  I worked long hours for many years before we decided to have a family. When we did, I made a commitment to myself to reduce my work time to be able to spend time with my family. I’ve been modestly successful at honoring that commitment.

Q:  What deli retail trends have impacted the industry most over the last year?

A. There are substantial shifts taking place in our niche of the deli industry right now, more so than in any other time in my career. While specialty cheese has finally arrived, maturing to a point that many people are aware of the category, it has also lost some ground at the very high end and in the local category. Plant-based proteins, functional foods and foods that satisfy the requirements of specific diets have taken some of the wind out of the sales of those specialty cheeses and meats that found favor in their tradition, joy of discovery and incredible flavors.

Q: What technology or technical tools are indispensable to you in the workplace and why?

A.  As a supplier of specialty products, we rely heavily on product knowledge and customer interaction. This precludes the use of a lot of automation. I do rely heavily on analytics to make purchasing decisions and have been very impressed with the richness of the data that can be produced now versus 10 years ago. I am able to compare many metrics in a short amount of time, giving me at least the sense that I can make informed decisions. Recently, in order to reduce the amount of emails my teams are producing internally, we moved to using Microsoft Teams for as much internal communication as we can. This transition happened as we were getting staff to work from home during the coronavirus. I have found it to be invaluable for communicating with my team. Anything from a quick thought to a daily video conference briefing, from file sharing and collaborative analysis to providing my homebound team with much needed social interaction is all made possible in this one application.  

Q: What have been the biggest changes in the deli industry over the course of your career?

A.  First, let me define our niche of the deli industry. Seacrest primarily works with specialty producers with cheese, charcuterie and antipasti being our largest categories. We also have a focus on specialty dry goods and accoutrements. The biggest changes have been those associated with the growth and maturation of our niche. What started with small producers and importers working hard to educate consumers has become a well-developed industry. Along with the mainstream acceptance of specialty products into the conventional market has come a tightening of food safety regulations. In the past decade, we have seen food safety regulations become increasingly demanding in terms of time and resources. This has greatly increased the cost of starting and running a dairy or charcuterie operation. As a result of these forces, the overall quality of products has increased, along with the barrier to entry for smaller operations. We are seeing fewer small producers opt into distribution, but rather try to make a living with farmer’s markets and direct sales.  

As specialty foods have become more well-known and smaller producers have found it difficult to compete, we have seen the larger producers create products to satisfy the demand. This has allowed supermarkets to increase their offerings considerably, bringing specialty foods to a larger audience. At the same time, this has hurt many of the smaller, specialty stores. In a time when convenience is so important, it is difficult to convince a consumer to make a separate stop at a specialty store for something they can get at the supermarket. We have seen our smaller, specialty stores and cheese shops have to change their business models to maintain relevance. The last 25 years has seen an incredible growth in specialty foods, but along with that growth, consolidation and barriers to entry have put pressure on those producers and small retailers that were instrumental in creating the demand.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome on the job?

A.  In the very beginning it was making cold calls! But overall, being an independent person by nature, I’d say learning how to be a manager has been the hardest challenge I’ve faced. I’m fortunate to have a talented group of dedicated professionals on my team.

Q:  What hobbies do you enjoy outside of work?

A. Who has time for hobbies? When I have time, I love to cook, garden and spend time with family and friends.  

Q: Are you married? If so, how long? How many children?

A.  Yes, I am married to my wonderful wife, Miranda. We have been married for 12 years, but together for almost twice that. We have two children, Andrew, who is eight, and Niveen, who is five.


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