Retail Dietitian Close Up: Sarah Koeninger, The Kroger Co.
Sarah Koeninger, RD, LD is a registered dietitian licensed in Kentucky and Ohio. As a native Kentuckian, she grew up as a Kroger shopper and began working in Kroger Customer Connect shortly after finishing her degree program at Eastern Kentucky University. She holds a Bachelor of Science in General Dietetics and a minor in business and completed her dietetic internship at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati, OH. While completing her internship she continued to work part-time for The Kroger Co.
Her position within Kroger has always been in what was previously known as the Kroger Service Center, where she dedicates her time to answering customer questions regarding Kroger and banner brand products, gluten status, food allergens, nutrition label reading, ingredient statements, labeling laws and regulations, food safety, and everything in between. Sarah answers questions and addresses customer product concerns in real time directly with customers over the phone, through email, postal mail and/or fax; she also responds indirectly through the Kroger Customer Connect Ambassadors who are the first people a customer will communicate with when calling the 800 number (printed on all Kroger packaging) and emailing through the website. She researches questions for customers utilizing various resources including other departments within The Kroger Co. and suppliers; she will then contact the customer back using their preferred method of communication to share her findings. Sarah continues to work diligently to expand her role as a dietitian within Kroger along with the roles of the other Kroger Customer Connect Dietitian and the Kroger Customer Connect Home Economist, both of whom report to her.
Tell us a little bit about The Kroger Co.
The Kroger Co. (NYSE:KR) is one of the world's largest grocery retailers and is the largest traditional grocery retailer in the United States, with fiscal 2012 sales of $96.8 billion. Kroger’s Family of Stores spans 31 states with store formats that include 2,418 grocery and multi-department stores, 783 convenience stores, 326 fine jewelry stores, 1,195 supermarket fuel centers and 37 food processing plants. We operate under nearly two dozen banners, all of which share the same belief in building strong local ties and brand loyalty with our customers. Company-wide The Kroger Co. employs 343,000 associates.
What’s the story on your experience in retail and your position with The Kroger Co.?
While completing my degree program at Eastern Kentucky University, I was president of the Phi Upsilon Omicron Honor Society and worked with other members to arrange for alumni working in various fields to return and speak about their careers. The speaker for the dietetics group was a Kroger dietitian in the Customer Service Center. As my graduation date loomed ahead of me, I began looking for a job in the nutrition field near my home in Cold Spring, KY. I contacted the speaker, and as it turned out, her department was in discussions about needing assistance for their dietitian team, which consisted of two RDs and one part-time home economist. After graduation, I worked full time through the summer and stayed on part-time working evenings during my internship. I’ve been with Kroger for about five and a half years. In that time, both previous dietitians and the home economist moved on to new opportunities or retired. After being the sole ‘food and nutrition expert’ for a year or so, I was able to fill those two positions and was eventually promoted to supervisor of the team.
What has been the biggest challenge for you as a dietitian working in the retail industry?
Because dietitian and home economist positions are not widely known across the company and there are so many working parts in a retail enterprise like Kroger, there is a lot of opportunity to continue integrating our work within the overall organization.
What is one thing that you wish you would have known before starting your career as a retail dietitian?
My business minor has given me a basic jumping off point, however I wish I would have taken a few more business classes related to business communication, networking and marketing. Once in a while, I think about taking a few courses or pursuing an MBA, however just being a part of the business/retail world and working with a variety of managers and colleagues has taught me a lot about communication, leadership styles, etc.
Has there been anything specific that has held you back? If yes, tell us about this and how you dealt with it.
An important part of my role is to regularly teach the organization the value that dietitians can bring to various areas of retail. I think that stems from people not really knowing what a dietitian (or home economist) can do or how broad the knowledge base is for each expertise. I tend to thrive on challenges so I continue to reach out to as many people as I can, offering to assist with projects, events, etc. and taking advantage of as many opportunities as possible. I am constantly looking for ways that my team and I can contribute knowledge, resources or time to initiatives.
In a similar vein, has there been anything specific that has helped you move forward? If yes, tell us about this.
The leadership of my department is extremely supportive and forward-thinking. Our current management team is relatively new (most having come on board about 2-3 years ago), however our Group Vice President of Corporate Affairs was overseeing this department long before I arrived. She not only supports the role of the dietitian and home economist in customer service but also works to leverage us and our expertise whenever she can. She is a great champion of our team and a strong leader for our department as a whole. It is fantastic to work with people who encourage me to expand my network and to always be thinking about how my team can show value, make a difference and put the customer first, always.
What have you done to equip yourself with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the retail industry?
I continue to explore the aspects of retail that I am unclear on and do whatever I can to become better educated on the subject. Sometimes this entails asking questions, taking part in a class or course offered by Kroger to its associates, or simply paying attention and listening to the people I work with every day to develop new or different skills. If you keep the mindset that you can learn something from everyone you meet, and you are constantly seeking out knowledge, you will not only expand your understanding of where you are but also where you want to go and how to get there.
Tell us about one of your programs or initiatives that you are most proud of and why.
Since my first day with Kroger, my goal has been to grow the job description of a retail and corporate dietitian. In pursuit of this initiative, my team and I are able to take advantage of the relationships we have with local community health professionals and advocates as well as organizations in which we are members. We began representing Kroger at local health fairs for corporate wellness, colleges/universities, and even our own Kroger-led associate lunch-n-learns. We continue to develop health presentations around various topics, and began presenting them as requested in the community and Kroger at no cost. We also contribute written articles and blogs to the Kroger and banner websites as well as brand websites. Through these opportunities, my team and I have been able to not only highlight Kroger as a whole but also our department’s commitment to customer service and the little known expertise and skills of dietitians and home economists.