Retail Dietitian Close Up: Mary Saucier Choate, The Co-op Food Stores
Mary Saucier Choate, MS RDN, LD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist on a mission. She wants to help her customers learn how easy and delicious healthful eating can be. At the Co-op Food Stores in New Hampshire and Vermont, Mary is a ready resource for customers with food and nutrition questions, teaching fun and popular classes and blogging on the Co-op website with “spot-on” nutrition information.
Tell us a little bit about The Co-op Food Stores.
The Co-op Food Stores of New Hampshire and Vermont, formally known as “The Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, Inc.,” began in 1936 when 17 Dartmouth College professors and their spouses formed the Hanover Consumer’s Club. Today we have four store locations in Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as a gas station, in-store teaching kitchen, commissary production kitchen, and administrative offices. Sales top $70 million per year. We are a member-owned consumer cooperative owned by more than 30,000 families, and one of the oldest and most successful co-ops of its kind in the United States. Anyone can shop, member or not.
What's the story behind your experience in retail and your position with The Co-op Food Stores?
I have been the Co-op dietitian since 1998. I got into the field after a five-year period of working in a clinical setting. I did a lot of informational interviewing, including with the Co-op. I report to the Education/Member Services Director, who reports to the General Manager. My role and responsibilities change with the evolution of our business. I started out offering weekly grocery store tours and individual counseling but soon expanded to reach more customers by offering cooking classes and focused on gluten free tours and shelf labeling programs, school presentations, and initiated the Staff Wellness team. I don’t have an official staff, but receive support as needed from the membership service department, human resources, communications, merchandising, and store department staff.
What has been the biggest challenge for you as a dietitian working in the retail industry?
Keeping on top of research in order to answer customer questions and for class presentations. Also, countering the enormous wave of misinformation that consumers have to wade through.
What is one thing that you wish you would have known before starting your career as a retail dietitian?
I didn’t realize then, but realize now that my five years in a clinical setting was invaluable to me. I can speak about the inpatient experience with authority, as I am familiar with the limitations and complexities.
Has there been anything specific that has held you back? If yes, tell us about this and how you dealt with it.
Not enough hours in the day. I am often tempted to continue my work day at home in the evening and have to be really disciplined to not open my work email or projects when I am at home. I don’t always succeed but realizing that I am more productive if I take a break has been helpful.
In a similar vein, has there been anything specific that has helped you move forward? If yes, tell us about this.
I have been extremely fortunate to have a manager who is skilled in letting a highly self-motivated person such as me flourish by supporting me in pursuing projects that play to my strengths and mesh with the needs of our community. For example, the gluten free labeling program and tours and the staff wellness team were ideas that I initiated and she fully supports.
What have you done to equip yourself with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the retail industry?
I work at maintaining current knowledge to keep merchandisers and staff up to date on issues such as gluten free products, DSHEA adherence, food safety, and other food and nutrition-related topics.
Tell us about one of your programs or initiatives that you are most proud of and why.
The staff Wellness Team was a project I had lobbied for and after overcoming several institutional obstacles, I was able to recruit staff and create a very effective and motivated team. It has helped to boost morale and raise awareness of healthful eating, stress reduction, and movement choices.