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How Whole Foods Market’s Kristin Payne Takes the Lead

Executive talks specialty foods and what keeps her inspired at work
kristin payne whole foods market canada
Kristin Payne and her beloved black Lab, Woodson.

It isn’t easy to be cultured in the world of cheeses, as there are literally hundreds of varieties to learn about, from slightly sharp and nutty (Parmigiano Reggiano, for example) to tangy with sweet Swiss notes (Cabot Catamount Cheddar) to buttery and balanced (Rogue Creamery Organic Enraptured Blanc). 

Kristin Payne is one of the few experts in the Canadian grocery scene. Introduced by her dad to diverse cheeses at just six-years old, Payne developed a palette for the varied flavour profiles (she particularly loved gobbling up cubes of stinky blue cheese!). Since then, she has carried her love of the dairy product to her 16-year career at Whole Foods Market, where she is the category merchant for the specialty department.

Payne is responsible for the placement, price, purchasing and promotion of cheeses, as well as olives and accoutrements, and loves when she has the opportunity to connect with producers and understand where her favourite foods come from. (Looking to try a new cheese? Payne recommends Stilton. “Don’t let blue cheese scare you, it’s actually delicious!” she tells Canadian Grocer.)

Here, Vancouver-based Payne explains how she has taken the lead in an intimidating category with her fellow team members and how her love of her black Lab, named Woodson, makes her a better leader at work.

How have you taken the lead as a cheese buyer and/or global category manager with a new team? 

Most of the team members (what we call employees) I work with come from a culinary background, so they are naturally more familiar with our prepared foods or bakery departments. Since they are newer to the specialty world (which includes cheeses, olives and other accoutrements), it was important for me, as a more seasoned specialty team member, to set a solid foundation for the team. They’ve hit the ground running in their new roles, working together to build on what previous teams started within our specialty program, while also figuring out how we’d like to continue to grow and show up in the Canadian market. I’ve worked to train, guide and support this new team on all aspects of the specialty business. Starting off on the right foot and being so engaged together has really set up our stores, team members and other stakeholders for continued success. 

READ: Whole Foods forecasts top 10 food trends for 2024

Can you talk about a recent initiative you led and what you learned in making it a success? 

As a category manager, I’m always looking for inventive ways to grow the business. I’ve come to realize that I can endlessly ideate to grow sales but relying on our store-level team members to drive those initiatives in our stores is the key to success. Late last year I initiated supplier-supported sales contests, and through these, not only have we seen sales growth, but the store team members have enjoyed the healthy competition and are pushing themselves to engage in next-level merchandising, sampling and the customer service experience while our supplier partners are seeing ongoing growth and increased store team member connection. It’s really been a win-win-win strategy and one that we will continue to implement for the foreseeable future. 

Who has inspired you as a leader or in honing your leadership skills? 

Since 2017, I’ve been fortunate to have three incredible team leaders (what we call managers) who have all inspired and motivated me to be the best leader I can be. I am thankful for each of them but one has been especially inspiring. Cathy Strange, who is very well known and respected in the industry, was my team leader for about four years. She was the global cheese buyer, then the vice president of specialty and is now our ambassador of food culture. Her leadership style is awe-inspiring: she leads through trust, passion, advocacy and empathy, which is also how she works with our supplier partners. She fosters success through her engagement and innovative thinking while still holding producers accountable to Whole Foods Market’s quality standards. She’s changed many lives for the better in countless ways, including my own. I always think if I can make even a fraction of the impact Cathy has, I’m doing something right in this world. 

READ: A growing appetite for cheese

What do you do outside of work that helps make you a better leader at work? 

I am a huge animal lover with a dog and two cats at home. Cats are pretty self-reliant and tend to be their own boss, but dogs require a solid leader. A lot of my time outside of work goes to time with my animals, especially training, exercising, and nurturing my dog, Woodson (a.k.a. Woody). He’s a very smart, kind 11-month old black Lab rescue. Being a positive leader for a dog requires consistency, calmness, patience, trust and confidence. Working on all of these qualities for Woodson helps me maintain and hone in on them in my work also. Watching my dog flourish brings a sense of joy that crosses over to my professional life, and in turn has made me a more effective leader.

Canadian Grocer's How I Take The Lead series speaks to people from across the industry about a specific project or initiative they led. You’ll hear from grocery leaders about their passions, how they tackle challenges, what they’ve learned and what keeps them motivated. Have a pitch? Send it to digital editor Jillian Morgan

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