Meet the 2023 Golden Pencil Winners

Get to know Jamie Nelson and Susan Niczowski

One is a grocery veteran who has climbed the ranks to the c-suite of one of Canada’s most admired retailers, the other has built a fresh food empire. Both are the recipients of this year’s Golden Pencil Award, the grocery industry’s most prestigious honour. Handed out annually since 1957 by the Food Industry Association of Canada, the Golden Pencil Award recognizes long-standing contributions of grocery leaders to the industry and to their communities. On Nov. 20, Jamie Nelson, chief operating officer, Pattison Food Group, and Summer Fresh Salads founder and president Susan Niczowski will be celebrated as 2023’s Golden Pencil winners. Read on to see why these two individuals are so deserving of the accolade.

The Golden Pencil Awards will be handed out at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York on November 20. 

jamie nelson
Photography by Mike Ford

Jamie Nelson

Chief operating officer, Pattison Food Group

Like many grocery execs, Jamie Nelson got hooked on the business early on. In Nelson’s case, it was a part-time job at Overwaitea Foods in Mission, B.C. that piqued his interest in grocery and he’s never looked back.

“I love the pace of the grocery business,” says Nelson, when asked what keeps him passionate about the business after all these years. “It’s always moving and changing; there’s never a dull moment.”

Indeed, Nelson’s 43-year career has been a steady ascent that has taken him from the store floor to the executive suite where today he serves as chief operating officer of B.C.-based Pattison Food Group, an organization that includes fast-growing supermarket chain Save-On-Foods as well as Buy-Low FoodsChoices Market and others under its umbrella.

An introvert by nature, Nelson says a skill that has served him well as a leader is the ability to sit back and listen. “When you truly listen to the challenges [of your team members] you can support and help them come up with the solution,” he says, adding that to be a good leader, “you need to build trust, and you do this by being genuine and showing people respect.”

READ: Jamie Nelson, CFIG’s incoming chair, on championing independents

Nelson learned early on the value of community and giving back. In 1995, when he was promoted to store manager at a Red Deer, Alta. location – back then a relatively new market for Save-On-Foods – getting out into the community and supporting local events and causes was “hugely important.” “It really benefited me not only as a leader, but as a person,” says Nelson. “When you work in the stores and live in many different communities, you get the opportunity to be part of great charitable initiatives.”

On top of his day job, Nelson has contributed to the wider industry by participating on several industry boards over the years and most recently he stepped up to the role of chair of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers (he’s been on the board since 2015), where he will advocate for the country’s indies.

When asked what he’s most proud of in his long career, Nelson says he’s “very proud and thankful that I have had the opportunity to be part of the growth of what started as Overwaitea Foods and now is a company of 30,000 people that we call the Pattison Food Group.” 

Susan Niczowski
Susan Niczowski. Photography by Mike Ford

Susan Niczowski 

President and founder, Summer Fresh Salads Inc.

Summer Fresh Salads president and founder Susan Niczowski had her sights set on a career in dentistry, but discovered “looking in someone’s mouth 365 days of the year” wasn’t for her. Instead, Niczowski turned her passion for “great quality, good food” into a 30-plus year career in consumer packaged goods.

After graduating with a bachelor of science in chemistry and working as a microbiologist at a food company in Toronto, Niczowski identified a need in the market for fresh, premium prepared foods and got to work in her mother’s kitchen experimenting with flavours. 

Using a “technology that preserves vegetables naturally,” Niczowski developed salad recipes—a Greek pasta salad and a summer rotini among them – that were sold in bulk to deli counters and foodservice clients.

“I always loved salads and created 18 recipes to manufacture that were fresh, all natural, no additives, no preservatives, no MSG, and started knocking at various deli doors,” she says. 

And with this, Summer Fresh Salads Inc. was born. Operations quickly moved to a 3,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility in Woodbridge, Ont., says Niczowski, and product lines expanded to include hummus and dips sold at grocery stores.

Like every entrepreneur, Niczowski has faced some challenges along the way. Still, she handles it with a can-do level of optimism. “From raw material prices to raw material supply to equipment to employees … every day is a different challenge,” but, “you dig down to find out what the actual problem is and get it resolved and get to the next step.”

Today, Summer Fresh boasts more than 2,000 recipes that Niczowski says can be manufactured at any time and the product lineup is constantly evolving to include on-trend flavours. (Summer Fresh recently launched a line of dessert hummus and decadent cheese spreads.)

“Food is fashion,” says Niczowski. “As the fashion industry brings out new runway items, Summer Fresh creates and develops exciting, new, fun foods that are flavourful, that are on trend.”

The Golden Pencil Award commemorates more than three decades of remarkable accomplishments for Niczowski and Summer Fresh, and learning she was one of this year’s recipients, she says, has been one of the most exciting moments in her career. 

“Starting off in the food industry, I would go to these events and always aspired to be at that podium,” she says. “And when I got the call, I was taken aback. I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that.’” It’s definitely something to smile about.

This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s November 2023 issue.

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