A wise man once said, “Never tell a young person that something cannot be done.” Judging by the achievements of the under-40-year-olds making their mark on the frozen and refrigerated industry, he was definitely on to something. While the folks we talked to are all passionate about what they do and amazingly altruistic, they also share a remarkable inability to take no for an answer. Read on to learn more about what makes these go-getters tick.
DAVID GREENFELD, 31
Founder & CEO, Dream Pops
A “recovering investment banker” with a sweet tooth, Greenfeld was inspired by a mentor who used social media to build better-for-you brands that challenged some of the biggest players in the food and beverage space. He knew the snacks he ate as a kid weren’t healthy, and he wanted to offer a solution. So after acquiring the intellectual property to Dream Pops, Greenfeld and a small, “scrappy team” used Tik Tok and LinkedIn to promote a nutritious, accessible, plant-based frozen treat expected to be available in 6,000 supermarkets nationwide by the end of the year.
“Social media has really democratized marketing,” he says. “Even small start-ups can compete with the biggest companies in the world. Every potential customer is just one LinkedIn message, text or DM away.” Still, how did Greenfeld find the courage to take such a leap of faith when more than 30 industry veterans told him it would be impossible to commercially scale the product?
“Not needing third-party validation to go after your dream is key,” he answers. “The superpower of the most successful people on the planet is belief in themselves.”
TRISTAN JO, 38
Vice President, Lucky Foods
Although Tristan Jo spent time playing there as a kid, Lucky Foods was his grandma’s business, and he had no intention of joining it. His mom took over in
’98, but the company struggled. After a few years on his own, Jo thought he might be able to use his sales and marketing experience to help the business regain its footing. His mom still had to be convinced, but Jo’s PowerPoint presentation won her over (really), and he came aboard in 2011. The decision proved to be a good one as sales have grown double digits every year for the past decade.
As a Korean-
American, Jo is keenly aware of the advantages he had compared to his parents and grandparents, who were all successful entrepreneurs. “But I was born here, educated here, and English is my first language. So I need to accomplish more than they did. That keeps me going,” he says.
Jo is also committed to continuing Lucky Foods’ legacy as a premium plant-based Asian foods pioneer. “I love to hear vegan and vegetarian customers say things like, ‘Oh, I haven’t had a spring roll in years!’ or ‘Wow, you have vegan kimchi?’ It’s exciting to be part of that.”
AYESHAH ABUELHIGA, 36
Founder & CEO, Mason Dixie Foods
After noticing a lack of comfort foods in the burgeoning better-for-you grocery space, Abuelhiga and business partner Ross Perkins launched a line of clean-label, scratch-made biscuits under the new Mason Dixie brand. “We were told no one would buy biscuits from an Asian-looking woman and a gay man,” she recalls. But today, “We are the fastest-growing biscuit brand in the country. So that’s our big middle finger to the naysayers.”
The pair is committed to a diverse workforce that better represents the nation’s makeup. In fact, 80% of the Mason Dixie team and 60% of its leadership is comprised of women and/or people of color. Another core tenet is affordability and accessibility. Growing up poor, Abuelhiga saw how difficult it was for low-income consumers to purchase wholesome, healthy food. “You truly are what you eat,” she says, “and I have always believed that we deserve better.”
How does she handle the inevitable setbacks? Perseverance. “I ask myself, ‘When have you ever failed at something when you tried your absolute hardest?’ And I can’t think of a single time. I know if I keep trying, anything I want can happen.”
RICHARD AKINS, 38
Senior Category Manager of Center Store,
Akins is that rare individual who can honestly say he loves his job. He knew from an early age that he wanted a career working with both people and food, so at 16, he started as a bagger at Harris Teeter. Over the course of more than a dozen years, during which he earned a bachelor’s degree, Akins advanced through the ranks, eventually becoming senior category manager of center store.
Because he didn’t have a lot of opportunities or support growing up, Akins is committed to being there for his family. But he also wants to help create growth opportunities for people like him looking for a career in the supermarket business. “I am very motivated to continue Harris Teeter’s rich legacy by helping pave the way for the next generation of industry pioneers,” he says.
For himself? “I want to be a positive influence,” says Akins, citing his favorite quote from Brian Tracy: “Become the kind of leader that people follow voluntarily, even if you had no title or position.”
TAMARA PALEFSKY, 32
Continuous Improvement Manager,
West Region, United States Cold Storage
Winner of the Global Gold Chain Alliance’s 2021 Global NextGen Award, Palefsky started working at U.S. Cold right out of high school. But what started as a summer job grew into a career after she discovered her love of the industry.
In addition to a strong belief in the power of collaboration (the phrase “teamwork makes the dream work” makes its way into almost every one of her interactions), Palefsky is bullish on continuous improvement. She’s especially proud of her long-term involvement with U.S. Cold’s USCS University, which invites future leaders to learn how other departments operate. Those skills have also helped Palefsky become a better problem-solver since she’s become familiar with so many different facets of the business.
One problem she’s still working on: the misperception that the cold chain industry is mostly blue collar — or just for men. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Palefsky. “We’re no longer just warehousing companies. We’re software developers, industrial engineers, safety professionals, data scientists and much more. There’s so much opportunity right now.”
GEORGE WEAVER IV, 20
Vice President of Marketing,
Nature’s Yoke & Utopihen Farms
The youngest member of our group, Weaver quite literally grew up in the family business, often spending afternoons helping out on the farm as a child —
and later, attending trade shows and calling on stores. But despite his pedigree (great-grandfather George Weaver Sr. started selling eggs to supermarkets in 1962), joining the company wasn’t a foregone conclusion until Weaver was asked to help with a 2018 rebranding effort. “I had more say and was able to communicate my opinions, which really excited me,” he says. “I discovered I had a real passion for the business.”
Weaver also played an important role in the creation of a new pasture-raised brand Utopihen Farms, whose rollout coincided with the start of the pandemic and the attendant supply chain disruptions. “That was a big test of our faith,” he says. “But seeing it finally come to fruition gave me incredible joy.”
‘You have to be OK with your lack of knowledge. Be humble, be willing to grow and learn, and walk every day with your hands open.’
What’s it like to be given so much responsibility at such a young age? “You have to be OK with your lack of knowledge,” he says. His mantra: “Be humble, be willing to grow and learn, and walk every day with your hands open.”
ANNIE RYU, 31
Founder & CEO, The Jackfruit Co./Jack & Annie’s
After learning in med school that poor diet is tied with smoking as the leading cause of preventable death, Ryu made it her mission to do something. She knew too much meat was part of the problem, but many plant-based alternatives were highly processed and made with unfamiliar ingredients. Her quest led to the discovery of jackfruit, a nutritious, sustainable, drought-resistant tree fruit that, when harvested at the right time, is “the meatiest plant out there.” The good news: 70% of the world’s jackfruit was going unused. The bad news: most of it was growing in India.
Ryu knew that if she could create a supply chain, jackfruit-based meat alternatives could be a game-changer — not just for consumers but for the more than 1,200 Indian farmers who now supply The Jackfruit Co. Last year, Ryu and her team debuted a second brand, jack & annie’s, featuring easy-to-prepare, heat-and-eat products such as wings, breakfast sausage and chicken nuggets, the latter of which is already a top-seller in both natural and conventional outlets.
What made Ryu leave medicine behind to pursue this opportunity? “The potential impact,” she answers. “I want to do what I can to make things better.”
PATRICK RHODES, 28
CPG Brand Manager, Cape Cod Select
Rhodes’ family has been farming cranberries since the ‘40s, but it didn’t enter the retail market until 2011 after noticing a dearth of frozen options. Offered under the Cape Cod Select brand, the new product took off, and by Rhodes’ senior year of college he was attending school full-time while also working full-time in sales and marketing. But like the rest of the staff, he wears many hats — especially during harvest season. “We’re a very collaborative team,” says Rhodes, who’s also in charge of production management and brand management. “But I think that’s part of what makes us so successful.”
While Cape Cod has gone from small start up to the country’s top-selling frozen cranberry brand, it’s been a bumpy ride at times, says Rhodes. “That’s what motivated me to start a small digital marketing business, Buzzed Marketing, so I could help other small businesses in this industry that are on the same journey.”
What’s next for Rhodes? “There’s still lots of room to grow,” he says, citing the potential of the company’s new larger bags. “What I’d really like is for people to hear ‘frozen cranberries’ and immediately think ‘Cape Cod Select.’”
SARAH GALLETTI, 35
Founder & Chief Creative Officer, Tattooed Chef
In search of a clear direction after film school, Galletti headed to Europe to reconnect with her Italian roots. She started working at a pasticceria and a gelateria and soon realized that food was the medium through which she could express everything she wanted to say. After returning home to Los Angeles, Galletti literally dreamed about Tattooed Chef, the better-for-the-planet plant-based food company she founded in 2014. Eight years later, business is booming, and Galletti is preparing to take the brand outside the frozen space for the first time. But she’s still fighting the misperception that plant-based foods don’t taste good.
“I’m here to tell you that’s not the case!” she says. “Plant-based food doesn’t have to be boring — and it can be delicious.” It’s also about much more than just meat alternatives (though Tattooed Chef does offer several value-added options). “We’re plant-powered without the prep,” says Galletti, who wants to make it easy for consumers to choose plant-based at every meal.
So what’s the secret to her success? Authenticity is a big part of it. “Never lose sight of what makes you unique and different,” she says.
VANESSA PHILLIPS, 38
Co-founder & CEO, Feel Good Foods
After being diagnosed with celiac disease, Phillips wanted nothing more than to develop a gluten-free version of the dumplings she could no longer enjoy at her father’s restaurants. However, the company she co-founded back in 2011 soon grew into something much bigger. Today, Feel Good Foods produces 30 different gluten-free SKUs sold at more than 15,000 supermarkets nationwide, making it the best-selling and fastest-growing brand in the natural frozen snacks and apps category.
While Phillips was initially motivated by her own need, “It’s so gratifying to hear directly from consumers how Feel Good Foods touched their lives by allowing them to enjoy some of their favorite foods once again.” But it’s no longer only about people with celiac. “The brand has evolved so much,” says Phillips. “We’re offering solutions for any busy consumer looking for nostalgic foods in a better-for-you format.”
Where did Phillips get her drive and ambition? “My family always says I was a stubborn kid,” she jokes. But that attitude has served her well. “I get as much from people who don’t believe in me as from those who do. When I hear ‘You can’t,’ I respond with, ‘Oh, I’ll show you.’”
TED HAMMAN, 34
Frozen Food, Smart & Final
When Hamman started working at Smart & Final as a 17-year-old saving up to buy his first truck, he never imagined he’d still be there 17 years later. But after benefitting from the chain’s tuition reimbursement program, he realized he had found his calling — and a place where he could build a career in the grocery industry.
Hamman worked his way through the Smart & Final ranks, eventually landing at the corporate office where he serves as frozen food category manager. It hasn’t always been easy, especially the past two years, but he believes that “hard work works.” Integrity, accountability, respect and commitment to personal growth are important, too.
Not surprisingly, Hamman is also a firm believer in the value of real work experience. There are plenty of “book smart” young people out there, he explains, “But you have to get out there in the field — put yourself on the front lines — in order to really understand whatever the job may be.”
DANIEL GOETZ, 35
Founder & CEO, GoodPop
Unable to find a healthy version of the paletas he fell in love with during a trip to Mexico, Goetz decided to create his own “cleaned up classics.” But he wanted his new company, GoodPop, to do good as well. Since 2009, the Certified B-Corporation has partnered with dozens of non-profits, but one of Goetz’s favorites is Feeding America. “Helping to end hunger by not only feeding people but feeding them healthy food is important to us,” he says, citing the company’s dedication to the clean food movement.
GoodPop is also committed to the people it works with — at every level. For example, “We were the first frozen novelty to source fair trade ingredients outside the states, allowing farmers in developing countries to get out of poverty,” says Goetz. Knowing his company can impact people’s lives in such a profound way is part of what drives Goetz. “As an entrepreneur, putting others first and not doing things just for yourself is key.” With that in mind, the company recently launched its own non-profit, the Pledge Good Foundation, which donates a dollar for every good deed consumers agree to perform.
ERIKA WILHOIT, 38
Frozen, Save A Lot
Wilhoit’s retail roots run deep, starting at her grandfather’s hardware store where she spent many mornings as a child. After college, she worked as a project manager at Vi-Jon responsible for launching new products. “Hearing proposals from category managers about new products they wanted to bring to market sparked my own interest in category management,” says Wilhoit. “But while I enjoyed being responsible for bringing their ideas to life, I wanted to be the one with the ideas, who researched the possibilities and then made it happen.”
Fast forward a few years, and that’s exactly what she does as category manager of frozen at Save A Lot. “Seeing a product I dreamed up sitting on the shelf is still just as exciting,” says Wilhoit, who’s most proud of product launches into new categories. She’s also thrilled to be part of the evolution of private label, which she says has caused everyone to rethink the meaning of value.
ADRIANNA FRELICH, 31
Frelich has been with Bernatello’s since graduating from college, working her way up to marketing manager through hard work and good mentoring. She’s
all about using her position to help change the perception that frozen food isn’t as good as fresh and believes 20- and 30-somethings like her can play a key role. “We have a unique perspective on what our generation and future generations are looking for from the frozen pizza industry,” says Frelich. “So it’s extremely important to have younger people on the team.”
Her other passion is her involvement with various non-profits that assist those who have served in the military or law enforcement as well as folks who work with youth. “I am very proud of the work Bernatello’s has done to fundraise for local non-profits, including Friends in Service of Heroes (FISH), Rawhide Youth Services, Youth Frontiers and local police and fire departments.” She adds, “In the last few years, we have been able to donate over $500,000, and we are just getting started.”
PATRICK MATEER, 29, CEO &
ALEJANDRO PIASECKI, 29, COO
Co-founders, Seal the Seasons
After working at a local farmer’s market in college, Mateer saw for himself how much consumers prefer locally grown produce. The problem was that small growers with seasonal harvests couldn’t meet that demand year-round. His solution? Freezing. “Industry leaders told me I was crazy to try frozen on a localized scale,” he recalls. “No one saw the opportunity in this sleepy category.” But Mateer and Seal the Seasons co-founder Piasecki forged ahead, and today, the brand is in several thousand stores across more than 30 states.
“Our mission is to support family farms and connect their healthy food to both rural and urban areas,” says Mateer. But that commitment doesn’t end at supermarkets, he adds, citing a recent partnership with a pair of North Carolina food banks. Using Seal the Seasons’ economies of scale, they were able to help produce food bank-branded frozen local produce for distribution to families in need.
“We believe the best food comes from your communities,” says Piasecki, who attributes the pair’s success to humility, energy, positive attitude and vision.
OTHER HIGH ACHIEVERS TO WATCH
Kelsey Moreira, 30, Founder & CEO, Doughp, left a career in technology to start her own cookie dough company, whose mission is to reduce the stigma associated with mental health and addiction recovery. A percentage of all sales is donated to the SHE RECOVERS Foundation.
Andrew Moberly, 38, Senior Director, Category Solutions, Daymon, leads a team that helps clients successfully execute category strategies and development. He’s committed to helping the industry reduce food insecurity through sustainable agriculture, technology and increased awareness.
Braelyn Davis, 34, Co-founder & CEO, Planet Based Foods, has been thinking about ways to feed the world sustainably for as long as he can remember. After working in the cannabis industry, he started a company that makes food from nutrient-dense hemp.
Lindsey Hickey, 37, President & Co-owner, Simek’s, launched a hunger-relief partnership with Feeding America in 2017 that’s resulted in the donation of more than 5.6 million meals to date. As the second-generation owner of the family business, she’s on a mission to grow Simek’s from a Midwest favorite to a national brand.