ROI-NJ reveals its inaugural list of Food & Beverage influencers and sets the table with the state’s top names in the sector.
To find out the Top 10 most important people in the sector, read on! And to find out the other names you need to know, click here.
1 Richard Saker
Saker ShopRites; New Jersey Food Council, Freehold
In 1969, the New Jersey Food Council formed in part due to the efforts of its first chairman, Joe Saker. This year, the group will celebrate its 50th anniversary — and do so under the leadership of Richard Saker, Joe Saker’s son and the most influential leader in the industry across the state. It’s one of the many reasons Saker was awarded the top spot in the first ROI Influencers list for the food and beverage industry in New Jersey. Insiders throughout the industry applauded the decision. “People look to him for guidance, leadership and vision,” one said. “He is an industry titan,” said another.
Saker owns approximately three dozen ShopRites in the Monmouth County area, making him one of the biggest private employers in the county. It’s a factoid he takes seriously. “He understands he has great influence in the community and makes sure his stores represent that,” one insider said. “He is very philanthropic and gives back in ways big and small.”
That influence reaches far outside the county. His role at the Food Council — he is in the final year of a three-year term as chairman — has enabled him to expand his influence statewide. As if it wasn’t already big enough. And his family’s role in the growth of the food industry in New Jersey cannot be overstated. “Richard is an outstanding leader who comes from a pioneering family in the New Jersey food retail grocery business,” one insider said. “He’s the largest and most successful ShopRite owner in the Wakefern (co-op) family. But, more than that, he is the most influential.”
2 Bob Unanue; Peter Unanue
CEO and president; Executive vice president
Goya Foods, Jersey City
Goya is the largest Hispanic-owned business in the country — with reported revenues of more than $1.5 billion. But what makes the company great, one insider said, is that it has never lost its sense of being a family business. In fact, under the leadership of Bob Unanue (the CEO since 2004) and his brother, Peter Unanue (an executive vice president), the third-generation leadership of the company is as strong as ever. “You saw it at the opening of their new headquarters,” the insider said. “It’s not just Bob and Peter, it’s the entire family. You can feel it in everything they do.”
Everything they do appears to be working. The company has shifted from an ethnic food staple to a part of everyday consumer life, the insider said. “How their business has grown the past 10 years proves they are visionaries. They had a product that is not only growing in certain ethnic communities and demographics, but it’s going mainstream, too. When you go into a supermarket, you’re looking for Goya and you’re seeing it dispersed throughout the store. It’s a crossover product that is extremely popular. It’s an everyday staple in cabinets across North America.”
This makes Goya’s leaders more than visionaries — it makes them inspiring figures. “In a state like New Jersey where there’s so much ethnic diversity, to see what started as an ethnic product becomes so mainstream is an inspiration to the makers of every other ethnic type of food startup that’s coming,” the insider said. “They are saying, ‘We want to be the next Goya.’ ”
3 Christina Minardi; Nicole Wescoe
Executive vice president of operations; President (Northeast region)
Whole Foods, Englewood Cliffs
One insider called them “the dynamic duo.” Another called them “revolutionaries.” This much is clear: If Amazon and Whole Foods are going to change (dare we say, disrupt) the food delivery service model in this country and possibly the world, Minardi and Wescoe are going to be leaders in the movement.
It starts with Minardi, who grow up in the bakery her family owned. “The one thing about Christina is she’s extremely energetic and so involved and passionate about food,” an insider said. “She’s a foodie. Not only does she love working in the industry, but she loves food. She grew up in a bakery and in retail. And that passion has extended into the industry. Once she took over a key role at Whole Foods, they saw her talent and saw her vision and tapped her to be a regional president. Today, she oversees the transition of the Whole Foods brand and Amazon. It is story of a Jersey girl becoming someone who’s leading an international global revolution.”
Wescoe is by her side. “Christina was Nicole’s mentor, and Nicole has proven her abilities. They’ve worked really well together. Each role that Christina conquered, Nicole would be the one who stepped in right behind and found a way to take the job farther. Christina starts down the path and then she works in tandem to climb a mountain that previously was a man’s world.” Another said: “Whole Foods is one of the most feared retailers right now because of Amazon. These two are the reason why.”
4 Paul Chibe
CEO and president
Ferrero North America, Parsippany
As if being the maker of Nutella and Tic Tac wasn’t enough, the billion-dollar brand that is Ferrero has continued a recent trend of exponentially growing its brand. This year, the company spent $1.3 billion to acquire Kellogg’s cookie, fruit-flavored snack, ice cream cone and pie crust businesses (a deal that includes Keebler pie crust, Famous Amos cookies and Little Brownie Bakers, one of two suppliers of Girl Scout cookies). Last year, it acquired a number of Nestle’s U.S. candy brands, including Butterfinger, Baby Ruth and Nerds. “They’ve been buying brands to build their presence as a top chocolate manufacturer worldwide,” one insider said. “In the (consumer packaged goods) market space there, they’re a very big name. Their brands are very well-known.” What is not as well-known is the fact that the European company’s U.S. headquarters is in Parsippany. Chibe runs the show as the head of Ferrero North America.
5 Dean Durling
QuickChek Corp., Whitehouse Station
The QuickChek story is one any family business can aspire to. “It started as a small convenience store that served as a retail outlet to sell milk,” one insider said. “Now, the company has grown into a significant grab-and-go force in New Jersey.” One that sells far more than milk. It has added gas (which is a part of all new locations) and it boasts that it has the best coffee around (we agree). “They are not just food retail, but fuel retail,” the insider said. “And they are a lifeline industry. When it comes to helping people during an emergency with food and fuel, they’re right on top of it.” Under Durling, the company continues to set the pace, the insider said. “I think their offering of fresh options has changed the way we eat in New Jersey when we’re on the go. They cater to the fast pace of a Jersey lifestyle.”
6 Judy Spires
Chairman and CEO
Kings/Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market, Parsippany
The head of Kings is more than just a well-respected leader in the industry — one willing to serve in many roles, including being a past chair of the New Jersey Food Council and Academy of Food Marketing at St. Joseph’s University. Spires is an icon of the highest caliber. “Judy is an amazing leader who embraces everything she takes on with a passion,” one insider said. “But, more than that, she is a role model for so many women who are growing up or maturing in the food industry. She has never forgotten other women as she has risen up these ranks. And she’s also involved in the network of executive women as a leader as well as the spokesperson on raising the confidence of women in the food industry and making sure that women succeed.” Spires proudly boasts she started as a cashier before moving up to take — and conquer — every job in the industry.
7 Larry Inserra Jr.
Chairman, CEO and president
Inserra Supermarkets, Mahwah
Inserra would earn a spot on this list solely for his work as one of the biggest owners in the Wakefern co-op, leading the group in one of its most important areas: North Jersey, where he recently added a few more ShopRite stores. But it is his philanthropic work that secures his spot among the greats of the industry. Inserra has been involved with Hackensack University Medical Center for years and currently serves as the chair of its foundation. “So, not only is his involvement in health and wellness from the food industry perspective, but also from the health care perspective,” one insider said. “He has used his position as a leading grocery store owner to do good in the community he serves. That makes him not only an inspiration in the industry, but in the business community as a whole.” Among other philanthropic efforts, Inserra has endowed the Theresa and Lawrence R. Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies at Montclair State University.
8 Doug Fisher
N.J. Department of Agriculture, Trenton
Fisher doesn’t make the list because he’s the state’s secretary of agriculture, he makes the list because he’s one who understands the food industry better than all of his predecessors. One insider explains: “Because he used to own Fishers Supermarket down in South Jersey before we went into the General Assembly, whenever he would propose legislation, it would have a food industry bent with it. He had such a unique perspective from his food retail background and his food industry background. He speaks the language.” He’s taken that to the secretary job. One insider said it showed in the Jersey Fresh marketing campaign. “It’s brilliant. It’s a way he’s been able to take the agriculture industry and push it into the forefront. Other states try to emulate it, but they can’t. It’s a powerful brand and Doug has been a master at making sure that our brand stays strong.”
9 Joseph Sheridan
President and chief operating officer
Wakefern Food Corp., Keasbey
Overseeing the largest private employer in the state is a difficult task. When that employer is a co-op, it’s even harder. One insider said Sheridan makes it look easy. “He’s like a maestro in that position,” the insider said. “It’s a unique role. He has shown he has the ability to move forward a food co-op which is made up of over 50 different families who are owner-operators of the ShopRite and Price Rite Marketplace brand.” And for good reason. Sheridan has proven to be adept in the role. “He is someone with a vision to the future of what food retailing will look like, not only five years from now, but 10 years from now,” an insider said. “I consider Joe the pulse of Wakefern.” Another insider said he uses that role for good. “Not only has he been able to build the co-op, he is someone who makes sure the co-op members are building their place in their communities.”
10 Linda Doherty; Marilou Halvorsen
President; CEO and president
New Jersey Food Council; New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, Trenton; Trenton
This list is filled with leaders from all aspects of a sector that is far bigger than most realize — everything from supermarkets and restaurants to food producers worth billions and those just starting out. It takes a lot to keep such a diverse collection of interests moving in the same direction. Doherty, the head of the Food Council, and Halvorsen, the head of the Restaurant and Hospitality Association, do just that.
“Linda gets fully involved and has been able to help both the large food retailers and manufacturers work together on initiatives,” one insider said. Said another: “Whether it’s education for the industry, support with resources or advocating and policy-making … you’ll find Marilou.”
Together, one insider said, they represent leadership and vision. “They help to create alliances that are very important for the members. They bring together food retailers, restaurants, manufacturers, distributors, and they all work toward the common goal of making sure that New Jersey is competitive and that the laws don’t hurt the industry.”