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A True Affinity: A Q&A With Nicole Hulstein, Produce Category Manager, Food Lion

A True Affinity: A Q&A With Nicole Hulstein, Produce Category Manager, Food Lion

Blessed with vision, grounded in community.

This could be Nicole Hulstein’s tagline if she were to pen an autobiography. The notion would take up space in the reader’s head. It would be a phrase that clings to the rafters of the mind rather than vanishing through the beams like smoke. I can’t imagine a better mantra for a woman whose career took her to lofty heights—all while maintaining a firm sense of who she was from the ground floor.


Known throughout the industry as Food Lion’s Produce Category Manager, Nicole’s passion for produce extends beyond the day-to-day operations. She embodies an authenticity that speaks to more than just buy-side excellence, but a true affinity for the people she serves.

Treating this piece as an autobiography of sorts is fitting—and one of the reasons why I love Q&As. Intimate conversations mean more to the world than I think we can accurately capture. Walking in someone’s shoes is an incredible tribute to their own voice, and in this article, you get to hear Nichole’s voice better than I could ever render it.

"I take pride in being able to connect communities with fresh produce for long-term health goals."

-Nicole Hulstein, Produce Category Manager, Food Lion

For that, I imagine you’ll want to keep reading.

 

Anne allen: Nicole, as a publication, we’ve been fortunate to watch your growth in the industry. What has your professional journey been like, and how did it lead you to Food Lion?

NH: I joined Food Lion right out of college. My mother worked there until her retirement; I have early memories of needing to go into the office with her. You could say I am a living image of growing up at Food Lion! While working for the retailer was always a consideration for me, finding produce was a gift I was not expecting. I knew Food Lion when I started, but I was completely blind to the industry with all of its beauty. I have spent most of my professional career in produce, with the exception of an 18-month window working in the snack category—talk about polar ends of the spectrum in terms of health.

 

AA: I can tell that produce has influenced you in many ways—something I think we can’t avoid when we’re working in this industry! How do some of your passions link back to fresh?

NH: I have always been passionate about health, being active, and feeling good.

Being an athlete in college meant I needed nutritious foods to fuel performance, and this turned into a lifelong love for produce! A Board opportunity about eight years ago opened my eyes to an underserved part of our community, children that may not have opportunities for early childhood education, nutrition to fuel their brains, and the long-term impacts that food insecurity can have on our communities. I take pride in being able to connect communities with fresh produce for long-term health goals.

 

AA: As you’ve grown in your career at Food Lion, how does your personal vision for produce align with the company’s overall mission?

NH: At Food Lion, we truly are the towns and cities that we serve. We believe this ideal at our very core. My personal vision is connected to this mission, and the strategic design of my programs is built with my customers in mind. My customers expect good retail pricing and fresh produce in a convenient and enjoyable shop. Easy, Fresh, and Affordable—you can count on Food Lion every day, and you can count on Nicole Hulstein to give 100 percent to make this happen.

 

AA: I love that sentiment. It sounds like a mantra others can learn from. Throughout your professional journey, what learning experiences have shaped you? Any a-ha moments?

NH: I have these frequently! I believe we should look for learning at every opportunity. Learning experiences can be big or smaller, everyday occurrences.

"At Food Lion, we truly are the towns and cities that we serve. We believe this ideal at our very core. My personal vision is connected to this mission, and the strategic design of my programs is built with my customers in mind."

A big one for me was in the area of people management. I have learned that we are all unique in the way that we like to be led and managed. I have personally always enjoyed a puzzle and enjoyed the satisfaction of figuring things out. The level of engagement in the puzzle-solving mission is different for us all, and I had to learn that my leadership needed to be catered to the individual.

 

AA: The individual is so important to fresh produce—I think in ways we never quite expect. As we work together as an industry to tackle challenges, which opportunities at retail are you most excited to spearhead?

NH: I believe this past year has been an experience that most of us will never forget. There have been hardships, and there have been moments of pride and accomplishment.

Some areas of grocery retail, in general, have been amplified, such as e-commerce. Some customers would have not transitioned to ordering groceries online had there not been a pandemic, and some of those that transitioned have discovered that they truly enjoy the experience. I believe the fresh produce industry will have to tackle ‘talking’ to those customers in a different way.

Packaging and sustainability are challenges ahead, and I’m excited to see how this industry will take it on as well.


Speaking with Nicole is like speaking to a friend. Perhaps it’s the blend of determination and warmth, but it isn’t hard to see why a community would flock to her.

After all, what is this industry if not one large family?

And large families make for very good memoirs.