Retail Dietitian Close Up: Audrey Kessler, Food City

No background in retail? No problem! Food City's Audrey Kessler's desire to thrive in the retail industry is fueling her success.

March 17, 2014

Audrey Kessler, RD, LDN is the Corporate Dietitian for Food City’s retail grocery chain. Focusing on serving their associates, customers and community at large, she promotes health and wellness through educational programs and events, endorsing the NuVal® Nutritional Scoring System, and regularly appearing on and contributing to traditional and social media outlets.

Audrey joined the Food City team in January 2013, having moved from New York City.  She is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, including the Food & Culinary Professionals Dietary Practice Group, a Marketing Committee Member of the Tri-Cities District Dietetic Association, serves on Healthy Kingsport’s Nutrition Advisory Team and is an Adjunct Faculty member under the Allied Health Department at East Tennessee State University.   

Tell us a little bit about Food City.

K-VA-T Food Stores, Inc., the company’s corporate banner is a privately held, family-owned company that has grown over the years by expansion and acquisition.  With units in southeastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and east Tennessee, K-VA-T is an acronym of its trade area:  Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee. The 106-store chain retailer includes 94 Food City locations, ten Super Dollar Discount Foods limited assortment stores, one convenience store and one wine & spirits store, as well as 76 pharmacies and 86 fuel stations.  The company also operates its own 1.2 million square-foot distribution center and water bottling facility, Misty Mountain Spring Water, LLC.  Over 14% of the company is owned by its associates through their Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). For more information, visit the website at www.foodcity.com

What’s the story on your experience in retail and your position with Food City?

My interest in advertising and copywriting lead me to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Ad/PR.  Yet my ongoing passion for nutrition convinced me to seek credentialing in dietetics.  Upon passing the RD exam, I became the Supervisor of Nutrition and Food Service for an adult day health center in New York City, and later acquired the additional title and responsibilities of Supervisor of Therapeutic Recreation.  When life and love brought me to Tennessee, I joined the district dietetic association to network and get leads on job opportunities in the area.  The first quarterly meeting I attended was held in a Food City store with the Director of Healthy Initiatives, Lori Hamilton, as the guest speaker.  We were introduced, and I was informed of the Retail Dietitian position opening in her department – a job I never knew existed and sounded fascinating.  Four interviews later—the final one with the President and CEO, Steve Smith—I landed the job. 

The short answer to your question: I have no experience in retail, but my path has been preparing me for it all along!  I’ve been with Food City for over a year now.   

What has been the biggest challenge for you as a dietitian working in the retail industry?

With experience in community and clinical-based work, I was not trained to be particularly business savvy.  However, the desire to thrive in this competitive and complex industry motivates me to learn all I can on the job and build a stronger sense of business acumen, which is gradually becoming more intuitive to me.

What is one thing that you wish you would have known before starting your career as a retail dietitian?

Entering the job with a deeper understanding of the organizational structure would have been helpful.  Although every company is different and a learning curve is expected of all new associates, having a better sense of general grocery retail infrastructure would have saved me some time and energy.

Has there been anything specific that has held you back?  If yes, tell us about this and how you dealt with it.

Only my insecurities.  So, I attempt to “eat the frog” every day.   That is, I try to complete first what tasks and projects intimidate me the most.  Procrastination holds everyone back!          

In a similar vein, has there been anything specific that has helped you move forward?  If yes, tell us about this.

I have an incredibly supportive CEO and supervisor.  Both Steve and Lori are deeply concerned and devoted to improving the health of our customers and communities, and recognize great value in the skills, services and programs a dietitian can provide to contribute to this mission.       

What have you done to equip yourself with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the retail industry?

I review the major retail supermarket publications, follow on Twitter and network with other retail dietitians.   And I ask a lot of questions of my co-workers and company executives.  I keep a running list of “Names to Remember”; leaders, decision-makers and knowledgeable contacts within the company and other professionals that I’ve found to be great resources.    

Tell us about one of your programs or initiatives that you are most proud of and why.

Food City and Wellmont Health System have partnered to offer ongoing Diabetes-Friendly Supermarket Tours.  Both organizations are prominent in NE Tennessee and SW Virginia, regions facing high rates of diabetes.  Our tours emphasize that preventing or helping to manage diabetes by making well-informed, healthful food choices at the supermarket is an important step in leading a healthier life.  To me this is the best kind of service; supporting the communities that support our business by teaching tools that can positively impact their well-being for a lifetime.  For this I am most proud.

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