IDDBA chairman and Columbus Craft means senior director of sales Erik Waterkotte says retailers are excelling today by looking at how they get to the consumer.
Erik Waterkotte got into the deli meats business by accident. An informal meeting while selling calculators and printers for Hewlett Packard put him in contact with someone who needed a director of marketing.

“After about six months of conversation, I began an eight-year stint selling and marketing deli for the company,” Waterkotte says. “Looking back, it was such a great decision, and I couldn’t be happier, as it’s such a happy business to be in.”

Where Waterkotte is now — senior director of sales for Columbus Craft Meats and chairman of IDDBA — is decidedly less of an accident. He took the reins of the IDDBA chair in September and has helped plan what is expected to be the organization’s biggest show yet. 

It’s a show that Waterkotte says can help attendees combat one of the biggest obstacles for the industry as a whole.

“In my opinion, the pace of change is accelerating,” he says. “I believe that, for many years, we in the perimeter have been pondering the same question: ‘How do I get more of the existing customers into my departments? Everything I sell can be bought in another area of the store, sometimes for less money.’”

Instead, Waterkotte says, the retailers that are excelling today are looking at how they get to the consumer. And that’s usually by creating a unique experience for them. “Regardless of how or what that consumer buys, they see the need to buy from the deli or bakery department, because of the experience those departments provide.”

As Waterkotte was preparing for IDDBA 18, InStore was able to catch up with him during a visit to a Lee’s Summit, Missouri, Hy-Vee. He shared his thoughts on IDDBA, the show, the industry as a whole, and more.

InStore: As we head into IDDBA 18, the strength of perimeter grocery and fresh foods is still growing. How has the climate of the industry changed since last year’s show? 

Erik Waterkotte

Waterkotte: Our industry is continually evolving, and last year we experienced both new entrants and expansion of trends that no doubt will impact how we do business. At this point last year, Whole Foods was a stand-alone company; now, store services like online shopping, click-and-collect, and home delivery—which were only beginning to catch on leading up to last year’s show—are becoming an almost necessity for retail store operators to successfully compete. Omnichannel—a topic addressed by a show speaker just two years ago—is long past the adoption stage, and retailers that haven’t incorporated the principles of this model into their operations are now scrambling to remain relevant among new grocery channels and services. 

How is IDDBA 18 addressing this shifting landscape?

With challenges come opportunities, and the trade show floor will be a source of inspiration and ideas for retailers looking to boost sales and grow their customer base.  Show attendees can expect a bevy of unique manufacturers showcasing the latest in new products and services; in turn, these exhibitors will experience the industry’s best venue for getting their products in front of retailers and, ultimately, consumers. And this is the ultimate goal for these businesses, as a company can influence consumer behavior if its product can be viewed and purchased in-store. But due to geographical and budgetary barriers, accomplishing this can prove difficult, especially as the local and sustainable movement continues to grow and evolve. Our show provides the perfect opportunity for companies to make this happen.

How has IDDBA helped you in your career? 

This is probably my favorite question.  As noted early in the interview, I came to the deli business later in my career.  The IDDBA and specifically past president Carol Christison took a chance on me by offering a position on the Board of Directors. Since then, the IDDBA has provided me with a global perspective of the businesses we serve.  For many of us, we work in the deli, the bakery, or dairy. Beyond that, you may only see non-service aspects of all of these categories.  The IDDBA has educated me on every aspect of the deli, dairy, bakery, cheese, and prepared food business.  It has allowed me to develop an intelligence about how all of these areas truly are intertwined and interdependent.  From a selfish perspective, this has allowed me a greater working knowledge of my customers’ business, and hopefully it has helped me be a better resource for my retailers.  From a more general perspective, it has helped me build friendships and relationships that extend well outside my work day, and I hope these extend long after my working days.

|||READ MORE: Goals, advice and more |||

Waterkotte says the food and the people drive him in the food industry.
What goals do you have as a board chairman for IDDBA? 

Survival? I’m joking. The office of IDDBA Chairman comes with a lot of responsibility, and I first have to thank Hormel and Columbus for allowing me to serve this organization. Without their great support, I would not have the chance to achieve any of the goals we are working toward this year.  Beyond that, my main goal is leaving this organization positioned for the future.  There are a number of training and educational programs currently under development, and I see this area as one that IDDBA can own and really propel to new heights.  Our goal as an association is to retain and attract talented professionals on the category side of our businesses. From deli training certification that keeps talented people at the store level, to our fresh careers programs aimed at keeping talented culinary people in the business, we’re busy developing a curriculum that will help our members recruit and keep adept associates in our deli, bakery, dairy, cheese, and prepared food departments and the manufacturers that provide the products sold there. By doing so, we help ensure a strong employee base to grow and sustain our industry.

You were elected in September. What work are you excited about that has taken place since?  

There are two IDDBA initiatives that I am really excited about, and I’m confident that my enthusiasm for these will carry over to our members and the industry. The first initiative, which will have a positive future impact on our membership, is the work our Long Range Planning Committee is currently doing.  This important IDDBA committee is tasked with projecting how our industry will look in five to 10 years and steps our association needs to take to not only continue to be relevant to our members, but also action items necessary to help ensure our industry survives and thrives. Those conversations and efforts will lead to programs that will be in place long after my term as chairman.  

Second, since I have been a member of the Board of Directors, one of my passions has been engaging young people in our industry through professional development and scholarship.  Over the past three years, our development programs have increased ten-fold in both scholarship and professional development participation.  What is most exciting, though, is the debut of the new Fresh Careers program at this year’s show. As part of the program, 16 college students and four professors will have the opportunity to attend our show and be mentored by leaders in our industry. The more we, as an association, can do to develop and retain young talent in our industry, the stronger our industry can become.

What drives you in this industry?  

The food and the people.  First, what a great business we are in to help customers enjoy a meal, a snack, or a drink.  We are in a service business that, in general, is enveloped in positive experiences, whether it is entertaining for a group or creating an intimate meal for two.  We have the chance to make that experience just a bit better or more pleasant by creating products and solutions for retailers and consumers alike.  Second, it’s the people. I have had the pleasure of working with some of the best people in the world on the retail side of the business. These are the professionals that are actually serving customers every day and doing their best to make a great experience for them. At the plant level, I see the sheer effort, passion, and pride those employees have in creating the best food products for consumers.  I wish every consumer could see the pride our employees have in creating the best tasting products for them.

What advice do you have for those beginning their careers in the industry? 

Stick with it.  This is a great and exciting industry, especially with all of the changes we’re experiencing. To be successful, it’s paramount that individuals new to the industry look for opportunities to grow.  Become involved in the IDDBA and participate in our scholarship, mentor grant, and new Fresh Careers programs. The opportunity to make yourself even more valuable to retailers and manufacturers has never been this accessible.

What can exhibitors and attendees expect from this year’s show in New Orleans? 

A: Solutions, solutions, and more solutions!   At Show and Sell, attendees will experience ways for creating solutions that keep consumers coming back to your dairy, deli, bakery, cheese, and prepared food departments for meal solutions.  From our great speaker lineup, industry experts like Christina Tosi and Bill McDermott will inspire and encourage attendees to improve personally and professionally, which in turn can help their stores and companies. And make sure to book an appointment at our Expert Neighborhood, where well-respected experts will be available to answer questions and provide insights on topics such as marketing, disruptors, and regulations. Finally, let’s not forget the show floor and all the great companies that will have displays, geared more than ever to creating culinary, packaging, display, and equipment solutions for our retailers. Combine these with other show programs and experience, and I expect this to be our most solution-oriented show yet, and one where both manufacturers and retailers will come away with something that will help them compete in the future.

What topics do you think attendees at IDDBA 18 are most eager to discuss and learn about? Do you have any advice to attendees on how to get the most out of the IDDBA show experience?  

Take it all in! IDDBA does a great job of keeping the general sessions confined outside of show hours, so that everyone can take advantage of the speakers.  Show and Sell is always a must-attend feature of our show, and this year it’s getting its rightful place at the center of the trade show floor. When you visit it, don’t just walk through it. Make sure you take the time to experience everything, from the merchandising concepts inspired by the latest in consumer buying patterns and industry trends, to the open food prep areas and dynamic speakers presenting at the Show and Sell Workshop. You’re sure to be inspired and educated, and we hope you share your experience with colleagues and co-workers at your stores.