Ag Careers Profile: Retail Meat & Seafood Merchandiser

Joe Hildesheim has been with Kroger for 39 years and managing the meat and seafood merchandising of nearly 100 retail stores for the past six years. He got his start at 18 as a bagger, and has worked his way up through dedication, education, company management programs, and great people skills.

Joe did not come from a farm, but lived in a farm community and helped neighbors and relatives with farm work. He started working for a small Kroger store in Elizabethtown. The company had plans to build a larger store across town, and most of the employees figured they would be moving their jobs. They ended up keeping the smaller store, which allowed Joe to stay and move up the job chain, and secure a spot as a night-time stocker. This was while he was attending community college.

He ended up earning a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from the University of Kentucky, and kept his job at Kroger throughout his college career to ensure he would always have a job during the summer months.

He eventually went through management training within the company. Kroger has a co-manager training program, and Joe moved around the state working at different retail outlets to learn the administrative side of the business. Skills he gained were learning how retail stores operate and how to interact with people. He said even though he had to learn the food side of things, retail grocery is really about serving people.

Joe has worked in meat and seafood for the past 20 years, and he admits that meat retailing has changed a lot over time. He said challenge one is to figure out how to put meat on the shelf in a way that people will want to buy it, and challenge two is to find the right people to work behind the counter. Not many people want to work at a grocery store these days. That is why there are a lot more packaged meat items on the shelves today.

“In the 60s, you could buy a whole chicken, and they would cut it up at the store,” said Joe. “Then we decided to pre-cut the chicken and remove the back, because nobody wanted that part.”

I told Joe that I used to regularly by the “whole, cut chicken,” but could no longer find it at the store. He said that most people only want a certain cut, so it is now packaged in all breasts, wings, thighs, or legs.

“Dealing with customer demands and desires is big,” Joe continued. “Everybody wants natural and organic, so demand is exploding for minimally processed and uncured meats. That is a challenge also.”

Joe said they must purchase fresh meats based on short-term demand because of expiration dates, and customers don’t understand why the price is more expensive on those items. 

Joe’s duties over the years have included developing ads, procuring product, making sure it reached the warehouse on time, making sure the stores had the right information to order the product, dictating how the stores placed it for sale, and then making a plan for moving the product through the system. Since meat has a sell-by date, they have to have the most efficient plan for getting it in the hands of customers on a timely basis.

Joe starts his mornings by looking at sales figures and budgets, as well as product inventories. In his current role, he works with product vendors and organizes special marketing events. He has some office work, but he also visits stores to make sure standards are being followed. Weights and measures, sanitation, and food safety are also important parts of his job, as there are many rules that need to be followed in the meat industry. 

He said enjoys working with the Kentucky Beef Council, and said their beef recipe promotion videos and the Derby Burger Challenge have been a huge success. Joe also enjoys the associates he works with and being part of a large team. The uniqueness of the meat industry has also been appealing.

“People don’t know as much about meat as they think they know,” he said. “I’ve been to farms and processing plants. I’ve visited a lot of different places. I even went to London one time to see how European markets work. This job can be as mundane or exciting as you want it to be, but there always seems to be innovation going on. Never underestimate the power of the American citizen to make their job easier. You hear a lot of ideas, and you think they will never work, but customers will jump all over it. The customer drives what is in stores.”

I could have talked about the grocery business and how it is changing for hours with Joe. There are very interesting, and sometimes frustrating, aspects of meeting customer demand, which varies from place to place. Online shopping is the next big thing. My space is limited, so I’ll need to stop here.

Finally, Joe’s career advice to young people is to put the phone down and start talking to people. 

“There is a whole world out there beyond texting. Interpersonal skills are so important, and the only way to develop them is to use them.”

Thank you for your insight, Joe.