Deli Business Magazine
Deli Business’ annual Peoples Awards recognizes the best of the best in the industry. These individuals come from a wide range of backgrounds and experience, but what they have in common is notable careers and contributions to the field. The following pages detail this year’s winner’s careers, business philosophies and crowning achievements, along with insight on their personal lives.
Chief Merchandising Officer
Q. How has your career evolved over the years?
A. My passion for food started at a young age on my family’s farm, preparing meals for the farmhands. When I began in foodservice, I was working at Don’s SuperValu in my hometown of Hastings, MN. Technically, I worked in the meat department, and the deli was considered part of it. We sold sliced meat and cheese, salads and sandwiches, and rotisserie chickens. I’d even make some of the recipes I made at home on the farm at the store. I worked there for 19 years, through at least 10 store remodels, which taught me a lot about growing the deli business. In 1994, Jim Kowalski hired me as the deli director and challenged me to take the delis to the next level at Kowalski’s; we had just four stores at the time. In 2000, I became the vice president of perishable operations, and about five years ago I became the company’s chief merchandising officer.
Q. What positions have you held in industry associations?
A. I’ve served on the Minnesota Grocers Association Retail Advisory Board.
Q. What is your leadership philosophy?
A. The biggest part of my leadership philosophy has always been to find really good people. I look for talent everywhere I go! I find it personally satisfying to be able to help empower talented people, to fan the flames of their passions and help them become experts in their craft. I believe strongly in supporting my people with training and experiences that help them understand where food comes from, too. Kowalski’s civic organizing approach, which Mary Anne introduced to the company over 20 years ago to the Kowalskis’ business, has significantly impacted how I build capacity of the people I work with and my core belief in the ability of everyone to make a difference in their jurisdiction.
Q. What is the best advice you ever received and why?
A. The best advice I ever got was from the great Jim Kowalski. He said to get in the stores as much as possible. There’s something about being on the floor; you get real-time feedback from customers and the best information about what store-level stakeholders think is needed in their jurisdictions. I think that personally seeing what is happening on the sales floor informs the best decisions and allows for quicker course corrections when they’re needed—something I think Kowalski’s is particularly adept at.
Q. How do you balance your work and personal life?
A. Sometimes balancing work and a personal life can be tough, but I feel fortunate to work somewhere where employees are encouraged to take all of their vacation. I’ve always felt supported whenever any of my life’s challenges and work conflicted, and I think it’s critically important to ensure my people also have the time they need to get through their lives’ personal struggles.
Q. What deli retail trends have impacted the industry most over the last year?
A. Customers demand better prepared foods from delis these days; they seem to be looking for a restaurant-quality experience with their grab-and-go and hot food options. Specialty foods are also a much bigger part of the business than when I started out.
Q. What technology or technical tools are indispensable to you in the workplace and why?
A. We’re lucky to have so much more data available than ever before, and so quickly. It helps inform decision making so that changes can be made quickly when needed. Online ordering has been a game-changer for our customers, too. The ability of our stakeholders to use technology like tablets to order from the floor has also been critically important, especially recently, when staffing has been a real challenge.
Q. What have been the biggest changes in the deli industry over the course of your career?
A. All we had when I started out in deli was a meat and cheese counter, rotisserie chicken and some deli salads. These days, we offer almost anything you could want—make-your-own noodle bowls, pho station, made-to order-pasta, hot chicken wings, sushi, a self-serve burrito bar, salad and soup bars, hot foods, prepared foods, grab-and-go meals. Interestingly, the one thing that I’ve always had in my delis is rotisserie chicken. Kowalski’s didn’t have a rotisserie program when I started with them, and I’m particularly proud of the program we have now. We are consistently rated as the best bird in town, and it’s for good reason!
Q. What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome on the job?
A. The biggest challenge in any business is keeping up with change, and these days the pace seems quicker than ever; it’s the same with the volume and speed of communication both internally and externally, from customers. I also feel challenged by the need to balance the amount and type of self-service options we offer, particularly in Kowalski’s high-touch environment, and in light of what happened in the last few years (in terms of the pandemic). Certainly, as the number of stores I’ve been responsible for has grown and continues to grow, there are challenges inherent with that, even just the sheer number of employees.
Q. What hobbies do you enjoy outside of work?
A. I love the outdoors, boating, golfing and most any type of live music. I also like travel and go to restaurants. I actually love to visit grocery stores when I travel, too. I like fashion; I actually went to school for fashion merchandising. Believe it or not, I wanted to be a fashion buyer when I was younger. It’s been a real “full-circle” situation for me in the last few years as Kowalski’s has begun to offer women’s fashion in the gift department.
Q. Are you married? If so, how long? How many children?
A. I have two daughters and five grandchildren—four girls and one boy. Interestingly, my youngest daughter is now the deli director at Kowalski’s, which is really special to me.