Nutritionist Close-Up: LeeAnn Kindness, MS, NDTR, Nutritionist, Product Innovation at Wawa, Inc.

Nutritionist Close-Up: LeeAnn Kindness, MS, NDTR, Nutritionist, Product Innovation at Wawa, Inc.

January 11, 2023
Annette Maggi
Retail Dietitian Profiles

By RDBA Executive Director Annette Maggi, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Please describe your role at your retailer.
My role at Wawa is focused on nutrition strategy, food policy, and product innovation. I combine nutrition expertise with consumer insights of food quality, dietary habits, and nutrition to drive product development that aligns with marketing and business objectives. I serve as a subject matter expert across all functions of the organization. I am also an internal representative for our Food Advisory Council, an outside panel of experts that help inform and guide our policies and strategies as it relates to our fresh food and beverage offerings.  Our nutrition team maintains product specifications, consumer facing nutrition information, and regulations as it relates to food labeling and claims.

What's the story behind your experience in retail and how you came to work at your retailer?
My path to working in food and nutrition was definitely not a straight path. I am a career changer. Right from college I spent 13 years working in ecommerce and marketing for a jewelry store in Philadelphia. About 10 years in, I started to ask myself what was next. I have always been an avid reader, lots of business and marketing books, but found myself starting to read more about food and nutrition. I was really intrigued how businesses like Whole Foods and Trader Joes were changing the landscape and how consumers were responding to it. I had also just read Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why.” I began to try and connect what I wanted to do with what I enjoyed learning.

I started researching and learned very quickly that a registered dietitian or dietitian technician are not only the experts in the field, but these credentials were also a requirement for many jobs.  The stars began to align when I found that Drexel University was in my town and would allow me work full-time during the day and go to school at night. I was lucky enough to be accepted and begin my journey to receiving my master’s in nutrition.

Upon graduation, I was a product manager in Product Development and Innovation for Nutrisystem. Through my time there, I learned how to combine science with product development – which was a new skill. I also owned consumer insights which demonstrated to me first-hand how important it is to have a customer centered approach to innovation.

And now – I am the Nutritionist for Wawa, using all those skills working on product development and innovation. The opportunity could not have been turned down. Wawa is an amazing company to work for.

What has been the biggest challenge for you as a nutritionist working in the retail industry?
Progress and patience. The food industry, consumer eating habits, and trends all tend to be slow in this field. You have to focus on small incremental progress most of the time. The big wins will come, but you have to patient. Ensuring the promise of choice is important, but you also must meet business goals. Balancing what consumers say they want and what they buy is a bit of an art. Bringing a food item into a retail setting that doesn’t sell isn’t only a bad business decision, but it creates food waste.  You have to be willing to challenge existing beliefs while taking small steps in a test and learn environment to make changes.

What is one thing you wish you had known before starting your career in retail?
I wish I knew how many other dietitians that are out there can help mentor and support you in this role. Tapping into their experience earlier in my career would have been beneficial. Also, ensuring you see the big picture and focus on what the retailer’s goals are. By using that information, you can better identify the changes you can make within the food and beverage program to support the business goals and nutrition strategy.

Has there been anything specific that has held you back?  
Due to life circumstances, I was unable to go on and complete the dietetic internship to be eligible to sit for the RD exam. This held me back more in my level of confidence in my knowledge and unique expertise than it did in my job opportunities. Being open about that insecurity with my peers allowed them the opportunity to provide honest feedback and advice to help me grow and gain the confidence I needed to foster my career.

In a similar vein, has there been anything specific that help you moved forward in your role?
Connecting with other RDs that saw the value in my marketing experience combined with a master’s in nutrition regardless of the RD credential helped me power through until I was able to sit for the NDTR exam and become a credentialed member of the Academy. Staying engaged with the Academy and attending conferences helped keep me focused and grow my education post-graduation. Early on in my current role at Wawa, I reached out to another RD who has been in a similar role for over a decade and is very successful. She spent just 30 minutes with me answering questions, helping give clarity to goals and objectives, and identifying obstacles and opportunities that are unique to working in foodservice and retail. It was invaluable.

About LeeAnn: Kindness is a marketing and nutrition professional with more than 15 years’ experience in ecommerce, marketing, and nutrition, driving growth for direct-to-consumer brands and foodservice through product development and consumer focused innovation. She is a registered dietetic technician with a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition from Drexel University. She can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn @leeannkindness.

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