A Pandemic Put this Seasoned Driver to the Test
He’s driven over a million miles and delivered close to 5.5 million cases during his career as a driver for Sysco. But Ed Kalinowski is thinking about different numbers these days…9.15.21. That’s the date Ed will retire his Sysco uniform – exactly 30 years to the day he began working out of the company’s Cleveland facility in 1991.
Ed, who is part of IFDA’s 2021 Truck Driver Hall of Fame Class, is wrapping up his driving career as the foodservice distribution industry recovers from one of its most challenging years. While much of the nation worked remotely in 2020, drivers like Ed were classified as essential workers, continuing to deliver critical supplies and food to hospitals, nursing homes, and schools each day.
At the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, Ed’s route morphed, stretching from 12 stops and 700 cases to 20 stops and 500 cases, a necessary shift that often extended his day. But like so many industry drivers, putting in 13 to 14 hours a day, five days a week, became the norm for Ed. “It’s everyone, we’re all working this hard,” he says. “This is a crisis. But I’ve been happy to do my part.”
Sysco’s pandemic plan included procedures to limit or eliminate contact between drivers and their customers’ employees. In the early days of the pandemic, Ed wasn’t allowed inside nursing homes to deliver shipments, waiting outside in downpours and the frigid Ohio cold to protect the patients inside. “The nursing homes and hospitals really get to me,” Ed said of the year-plus working through COVID and seeing its devastating toll.
Schools, a large customer base for Sysco, also proved emotionally challenging. “They were like ghost towns,” says Ed. “My granddaughter was starting kindergarten this year at the same school my sons went to. I was looking forward to finally getting the chance to deliver to her school and be able to see her, so not getting to do that was really tough.”
“Now there’s a distance between everybody,” he says of the pandemic’s longer-term impact on the industry. “You don’t talk the way you used to. People watch and keep their distance. There’s a distance that is more than literal. It’s had a great effect.”
Growing up in the Cleveland, Ohio area, Ed had a knack for cars and how things worked, skills learned from his mechanic father. Ed was a quick learner, securing his chauffeur’s license while working at a local auto repair shop, where he began replacing transmissions on cars and school buses. From there, he put his Class B CDL to work delivering appliances and eventually bought his own truck to deliver appliances as a subcontractor for Home Centers.
When that store closed in 1991, Ed sought a position at Sysco, a company he had been hearing great things about for years. “I knew nothing about food,” Ed says. “But I was looking for a place that seemed like they would be around because I had a young family to think about by then.”
Ed was focused mostly on working for a solid company, so he jumped on an opening in the warehouse at Sysco, working nights. Far from a night owl, he knew a transition to day shifts would be the only way he could sustain a long career. When a daytime driving position came available, he could grandfather his Class B CDL into the Class A requirement with a written test, starting his new career as a Sysco driver in April 1993.
At 31 with a young family to feed, Ed put in long hours to make extra money, logging hundreds of miles a day on shuttle routes to deliver some 700 cases over 15 stops. “Sysco paid for me to stay in shape, and I’m grateful for it!” Ed says of his job, which requires lots of squatting, hinging, pulling, and pushing of heavy boxes. Remarkably injury free, he says he’s begun in recent years to feel the aches inherent to the physical part of his work but knows a shift in mindset will get him through the day.
For someone who wakes up at 2:30 am five days a week, a positive mindset is a must. Coffee in hand, Ed is on the road by 3:30 am and at his first stop by 4:30 am. “I’m very grateful to Sysco,” he says. “It’s a good place to work. But it’s hard work, so what you make of it is really up to you. That mindset is so important.”
Ed, who has been a proud member of the Sysco family for 31 years, says he’ll miss his fellow drivers and customers the most. But he’s ready to join his wife of 38 years in slowing down and enjoying their combined years of hard work.
“The wife deserves the biggest praise!” he says of the spouses of drivers. “They don’t know when we’re coming home. We’re late often. I’m exhausted by Friday night. They sacrifice so much.”
Ed says being inducted into the IFDA Truck Driver Hall of Fame feels like an especially meaningful way to end his long driving career. “I’m proud and am looking forward to it,” he says. “If Sysco gives you an award, that’s one thing. But this is nationwide, so it feels big.”
To find out more about the IFDA Truck Driver Hall of Fame program, click here