Food Industry Executive spoke with members of the Food Processing Suppliers Association’s (FPSA) Young Professionals Group about the challenges and opportunities they see in the food industry today and in the future. This interview is with Nicole Chestnut, the customer service manager and safety director at Rome Grinding Solutions, a company that manufactures grinding equipment for the meat, pet food, poultry, produce, and rendering industries.
How did you get into the food industry?
NC: I got into the food industry by accident. I double-majored in psychology and sociology because I wanted to be a guidance counselor at a high school. Then, my husband got a job in Sheldon, Iowa, and I found work as a bartender and server at a restaurant in town.
I was serving Kate Rome [President of Rome Grinding Solutions], and she told me she was looking for a receptionist. So, I started at Rome in 2014 as a receptionist and worked my way up, first to customer service rep and then to the manager. Today, I work closely with the VP of operations, as well as outside sales and purchasing, and I have two people working under me in customer service.
What do you like most about working in the food industry?
It’s always changing. Every day is different. I feel like you can never get bored in this industry — I will never know everything, and that’s exciting. And there will always be new people to meet and new things to manufacture. I love the process, too. It’s cool to watch raw materials come in as blank slates and be transformed into a piece of equipment.
What has been your biggest challenge as a young professional in the industry?
Being young and also being a woman in this industry, I deal with a lot. In customer service, I get a lot of calls from men who work at plants, and I’ve been called “honey” and “babe.” People have asked me straight up, “Can I talk to a man there who knows what they’re doing?”
The biggest challenge is gaining credibility, so people know they can call me and count on me to know what I’m talking about. I like to think that I’m doing that, but it takes time, and more time as a woman. It’s hard to see guys who’ve started in the industry after me advance faster. It just seems a little easier for them.
Do you have any advice for other young people in the industry trying to build credibility?
For me, personally, it’s about learning as much as possible. There’s always something new to learn, so try to soak it all up.
Also, realize you’re going to make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes and it feels like you’re going backward, but you need to keep going. Don’t just give up.
How can people who’ve been in the industry help newcomers gain credibility?
Be open to answering questions. It can be scary to ask questions, especially when people react like, “How do you not know that?” So, the best thing industry veterans can do is let people know that they’re there to help. Any education they can provide for young professionals is worthwhile, especially as the older generation starts to retire.
How have you seen the industry change in the five years you’ve been in it?
In general, the industry is becoming more welcoming and giving more people opportunities to get involved.
For example, I love the new networks, like the Young Professionals Group and the FPSA Women’s Alliance Network. They’re making a difference in promoting diversity and helping people feel included — and not just people who go to shows or conferences. The Women’s Alliance Network has webinars, online chat sessions, and even a book club, so anyone can participate, even from their desk.
How do you think the food industry will change in the next 10 years?
It’s funny — I actually have an issue of Meatingplace on my desk right now that says, “Step aside, Millennials.” It’s about how Gen Z will change the meat industry. When I saw it, I thought, “Man, last month, people were just upset about my generation, and now we’re talking about this next generation?”
Clearly, technology will change everything. Will we have drones flying around delivering things? I think we’ll also see more advancements in sustainability. For example, I read recently that in China they’re wrapping fruit with banana leaves.
But regardless of the impact of Gen Z or new technologies, what I hope to see in the next five to 10 years is more mentoring and more avenues for sharing information.
How can the food industry be more attractive to young people entering the workforce?
The industry needs to think outside the box in terms of who they’re targeting. I hear a lot of people talking about outreach to students in food and meat science. These are obviously important groups, but I didn’t go to school for food or meat science. If I hadn’t met Kate, I wouldn’t have even known the food industry was an option.
There are a ton of students at business or tech schools who have skills the food industry needs, and most of them probably have no idea about the opportunities the industry provides. Almost none of us at Rome ever thought we’d be working at a company that made meat grinders.
What advice do you have for young people considering entering the food industry?
Working at Rome is one of the best things that has ever happened to me personally, and to my family. It’s incredible to go to work every day and love what you do. If you want every day to be different, and you want to be challenged and love your job, this is a great industry to be in. I say, go for it!
You mentioned the FPSA networks earlier. Can you expand on the value you find in groups like this?
Before I got involved in the networks, I knew a couple of our vendors and that was about it. But, through the networks I’ve been able to meet other young people and especially young women in the industry. It’s been amazing to realize that there are people who are in the exact same spot I am and that we can talk about the issues we face. It’s comforting to know that I have people in my corner to talk to.
I encourage everyone to get involved. It doesn’t matter what your role is at your company — everyone can bring something to the table.