By DAVID ORGEL
Who says there aren’t magical stories in the foodservice distribution industry?
Consider this one: Young woman defies the odds by building a successful career as a foodservice distribution truck driver in what has historically been a male-dominated field. The work helped to reverse her family’s financial challenges. She then landed in Disney World as the sole woman competing in the IFDA Truck Driving Championship, accompanied by her husband and four kids. Afterwards, the whole family got time to enjoy the Magic Kingdom, all expenses paid.
Sounds like a real-life fairy tale?
“Around our house we consider it more like a romantic comedy,” quipped Carolyn Russell, 30, a driver for the Black River Produce division of Reinhart, based in Springfield, VT. Carolyn and her husband Kurt (not that
Kurt Russell) are parents to four kids and live in Claremont, NH.
Carolyn outlined the winding road and perseverance that eventually led to career success. Her story might help inspire women to consider careers in foodservice distribution at a time when truck drivers are in high demand and the industry is striving to enhance career paths for women.
A recent survey
revealed that average wages for foodservice distribution employees are highly competitive and surpass those of many other occupations for U.S. workers. Foodservice distribution delivery drivers earn average annual wages of $62,854, far exceeding the average for all U.S. workers at $49,630, according to 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Whirlwind Start in the Field
By 2011, Carolyn had been employed in a string of low-paying jobs, from delivering pizza to working in a dog kennel. Even though she dreamed about a house with a white picket fence, she was financially challenged and living with her husband and their first three children in a trailer park in New Hampshire.
Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. While working at a fast food restaurant, Carolyn became friendly with drivers delivering food to the establishment. They helped open her eyes to a career in foodservice distribution as a truck driver. A round of googling helped identify a trucking education program and she earned a Commercial Driver’s License.
What followed was a whirlwind start in the field. Carolyn began in an over-the-road trucking role that took her to some 33 states in four months, driving a 53-foot tractor trailer with a sleeper cab. She enjoyed seeing the country, and her husband, who works as a sales rep for a website company, was able to remain on the home front managing the kids.
Carolyn soon realized being over-the-road was a challenging life for a young mother. So in 2012 she took a driver role with Black River Produce to stay closer to home. The family moved for a time to Florida, but soon returned to New England and Black River Produce, which was acquired by Reinhart Foodservice. The Russell’s now live in a New Hampshire home they are in the process of purchasing.
A recent survey by the International Foodservice Distributors Association found that the average route of a foodservice distribution driver is 180 miles, meaning most drivers in this segment of the industry stay closer to home.
Perseverance Leads to Success
Today, Carolyn transports seafood from a Boston seaport to Reinhart’s Black River Produce Vermont warehouse. In her role, it helps that she is nice, chatty and skilled at customer service. She still drives a 53-foot tractor trailer, and her physical profile certainly isn’t typical of drivers.
“I’m 5 feet 2 inches,” she said. “I’m a tiny, petite girl in this industry. People say to me, ‘you’re tiny.’ But I don’t know anything else except tiny.”
She may be small in body frame, but Carolyn is a giant when it comes to perseverance. She placed first in one of Reinhart’s 2018 divisional truck rodeos, which led to the invitation to compete at the IFDA national competition in Disney World last September, joined by her family and other divisional competitors from her company. She was the only woman to enter the 2018 IFDA competition and the first since 2014.
Does all this make Carolyn a trailblazer?
“Unintentionally, I guess,” she said. “I just find this career is something I like to do.”
The IFDA competition tested a range of skills, from expertise behind the wheel to ability to spot safety hazards. Carolyn, who competed in the 5 axle division with a 48 foot trailer, is accustomed to backing her truck up to buildings. Instead, during IFDA’s competition, she had to quickly learn to keep her eye on a sea of orange cones that marked locations for maneuvering the vehicle.
Carolyn performed well, and enjoyed mixing with others from her company and the wider industry.
As for Reinhart, the company is proud that Carolyn isn’t their only trailblazer. President of Field Operations, Casey Kinker, commented: “We believe it’s important to embrace a diverse workforce in every area of our business. Carolyn and the other women who work as delivery professionals at Reinhart are helping to pave a path forward – towards a more inclusive future in foodservice.”
Citing Opportunities for Women
Carolyn pointed to an increasing number of opportunities for women as foodservice distribution truck drivers, especially in the face of driver shortages. She would be pleased to think her story might inspire others, given that she feels highly positive about her company and role.
Carolyn said she wants to remain a driver as long as she can. While it’s impossible to know exactly what the future holds for Carolyn, her enthusiasm for this career indicates she likely has many more miles to travel in foodservice.
“This is a career that helps to open your eyes,” she said. “You can get to see the country, and you get paid for doing it.”