I love the sentiment, “The first through the wall always gets bloody.”
While Marianne Santo was not the first to embark on the fresh produce buy-side path as a woman, she is one of a select group that truly helped pave a course by laying that path for today’s women to tread. And not lightly, if you will, but with a fervent desire and fierce passion to impact the inclusivity of today’s industry voices and tomorrow’s produce demographic. We are all looking for that spark in our lives, the voice that provides a flashlight in the dark to guide us, a signal at the crossroads. Marianne, the Senior Category Manager of Produce and Floral for Wakefern Food Corp., is doing that as much today as when she first stepped into the produce division at New Jersey-based Wakefern more than 30 years ago. As one of the largest retailer-owned cooperatives in the U.S., Wakefern’s flagship supermarket brands include ShopRite, Price Rite Marketplace, The Fresh Grocer, Dearborn Market, and Gourmet Garage.
“In the last few years, my inspiration has come from seeing how many women are involved in all facets of this business,” she shares when I ask her what really stirs her passion today. “When I started attending the Eastern Produce Council meetings 30 years ago, I was one of maybe five women in attendance. I would never have imagined back then that we would, at this point, represent close to half the room and that I would become the first woman President in 52 years! It is a role that I am very respectful of and humbled by. When other women in this business express their gratitude to me for doing this, it is all the motivation I need.”
Thirty years can pass in the blink of an eye, as Marianne tells me. And who would have guessed those three decades could have revealed such a marvelous tenure—especially for someone who set her wheels in motion as an English Literature major at Douglass College with absolutely no idea what career path she would venture down?
“After working in an accounts receivable department at another company for a year, I interviewed with Wakefern for a position in the Produce Store Services Department because I wanted to work for a company that valued a college degree,” she says with a smile. “Within my first year, the Procurement Manager asked me if I would like to get involved with produce buying, and the rest is history. It didn’t dawn on me at the time that what I was being offered and pursuing was relatively uncharted territory for women on the buying side.”
“I try to honor those who had the patience and generosity to mentor me...”
Marianne Santo, Senior Category Manager of Produce and Floral, Wakefern Food Corp.
Marianne is well known for being a tough but fair negotiator—a worthy opponent, if you ask me. Add in her mastery of procurement systems and ability to work through the complexities of warehouse buying and domestic and international sourcing, and you have a hat trick if there ever was one.
“After a career spent learning the produce business at Wakefern, I now find myself in a position to be a teacher as Senior Category Manager. I try to honor those who had the patience and generosity to mentor me by paying it forward. Of equal value is what my fellow employees teach me—my relationships with them are based on the sharing of all our individual skills,” Marianne says. “I am motivated in life by feeling blessed to do what I love for as long as I have, and being married to someone who has always supported my career and the very demanding hours that this business requires.”
The time constraints, the early hours, the middle-of-the-night calls, the incoming storms, wind, rain, droughts, floods, frosts, earthquakes, and transportation nightmares over the years have kept many like Marianne on their toes in the produce world. But, as the gift of time passing gives us all, we can look back with a smile on how things have changed and how they have stayed the same.
“When I started, everything was done over the phone or by fax,” she laughs. “Emails and texts didn’t exist. While those methods have streamlined communication, I believe that personal interaction is still a very vital part of this business. Retail has obviously undergone tremendous change with the advent of shopping from home, in-store pickup, and home delivery, as well as competition from club stores and online retailers. Our stores need to be all of those things while maintaining our history as family-owned businesses that value customer loyalty on a personal level.”
Wakefern’s dedication to consumers’ needs is the company’s main focus—something that the team prides itself on, Marianne notes, along with keeping up with trends and nutritional concerns, and providing as much information as possible about the retailer’s products. This produces a loyal customer base, a notion that truly defines the Wakefern vision and can also be seen in the longtime employees who choose to stay and literally grow their tenure with the company.
“There are many reasons why Wakefern retains its employees for so many years. It’s the connection to our members, an industry that is both challenging and engaging, and the cultivation of relationships made among all of us who have worked together for more than half our lives,” Marianne says. “Personally, the reason I am most proud to work for this company is our year-round hunger-fighting initiative, the ShopRite Partners In Caring program. Many years ago, at a Category Managers meeting, Wakefern President and COO Joe Sheridan shared the sentiment that Partners In Caring allows people in need to acquire food with dignity. That resonated with me, and I’ve tried to incorporate that effort both with Wakefern and in my role as President of the Eastern Produce Council through our philanthropic programs.”
Marianne has a way of getting to the heart of the matter and that truly is, for her, what Wakefern represents through its many departments—care, commitment, and authenticity. This comes across, especially, in the company’s fresh produce department.
“I am motivated in life by feeling blessed to do what I love for as long as I have...”
“Wakefern’s produce vision involves diligence in regard to food safety, educating our consumers, supporting local and family-owned farms, and providing the best-quality product to encourage healthy eating habits for all of our customers,” she tells me. “We work hand in hand with our dietitians to achieve this goal and have amazing programs in our stores that are truly best in class in our industry.”
Here is a fun fact about someone who enjoys an admirable balance of both work and play, and one I adore about Marianne: She is often referred to as “The Watermelon Queen” amongst her peers, a title I imagine is not given lightly, speaking to her strong love for the category and her dynamic imagination for communicating its value. But, her love without a doubt extends to her other coveted category specialties, including honeydew, cantaloupe, citrus, potatoes, and onions, as well as Eastern and Western vegetables.
I often wonder, as I hear people’s stories, where their passion might have taken them in other industries, especially with a passion as voracious and wonderful as Marianne’s.
“Had I been asked what my career choice would be when I was in college, I would have said to become a writer. Who knows? That may still happen,” she says, and I am immediately on my heels, spell-checking my notes.
Whether to write the next page of her saga or to sign a PO as we move into summer, the pen is in her hand and the ink is far from dry for this retail leader, this mentor, this student, this woman of produce.