Michelle Omokaiye is the face of The Pantry's new Fresh Initiative. Literally. A life-sized, metal cutout of a smiling Omokaiye stands in the lobby of the convenience store retailer's main support center in Cary, N.C., welcoming visitors to the "new" fast-friendly-clean Kangaroo Express.
It also can be seen at store openings â such as the recent Dairy Queen that opened at a Kangaroo store in Statesville, N.C. â and at other stores as they convert to The Pantry's new Fresh Initiative.
In the flesh, Omokaiye is a warm, bubbly perfectionist. As manager of The Pantry's Kangaroo Express store in Apex, N.C., she is front and center in spearheading the success of the Fresh Initiative. For two years in a row, Omokaiye's store was recognized as the best merchandised store in the company's northern division, and it was here that new President and CEO Terry Marks spent six hours being personally trained by the outgoing and likeable manager when he joined the company a year ago. And it is Omokaiye's Apex store where many of the elements of the Fresh Initiative are first tested, such as the development of a new layer of store employees called hospitality associates.
Hospitality associates are special people chosen for their outgoing personalities and customer-friendly focus, who work the coffee bar and fresh case to enhance customers' experience with The Pantry.
Norma Gomez was certified as a hospitality associate four months ago, after eight years with The Pantry working as a sales associate in numerous stores. According to Gomez, the retailer asked her to move up to assistant manager in the past, but she couldn't due to family responsibilities. Gomez has two children, aged 17 and 14.
"But when they came to me with the idea of being a hospitality associate, I thought it was a great idea," she told Convenience Store News while making fresh coffee and greeting customers entering the Apex store. Gomez works the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. She moved to North Carolina from California nine years ago.
"Good morning Frank," Gomez calls to one customer while up-selling him into buying a Krispy Kreme doughnut to go with his cup of coffee. Another customer she greets in Spanish. "We have a lot of Spanish-speaking customers, so being bilingual really helps," said Gomez, who is also responsible for keeping the fresh case stocked and looking crisp. "We taste test all the product before we sell it," she noted, adding it is her job to make sure every customer is happy and feels good about visiting Kangaroo. "People see we take more care of them than anywhere else," she added.
Gomez has started training other hospitality associates at The Pantry and said she'd like to be a store sales manager some day, now that her children are older.
"I've been so fortunate to have the best employees," said Omokaiye as she watched with satisfaction as Gomez cleaned some handprints off the store's front glass doors without having to be told.
Omokaiye, a mother of four with eight grandchildren, arrives at the store each morning a little before 6 a.m. and polices the parking lot. Then she checks to be sure that the third shift (the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. overnight associates) properly prepped the store for the morning rush. "Our busiest time is in the mornings until 8:30," she said. "The hot dogs must be on the roller grill by 5 a.m. All the coffee urns must be full or brewing. The fresh case must be loaded, dated fresh, facing front and looking good."
It's the most hectic time of the day, but Omokaiye keeps everyone smiling, associates and customers alike. "Hi Grant. How are you today?" she effusively greets one customer, who responds with a smile and a hug.
"I love people and providing customer service," said Omokaiye, who came to The Pantry after three- and six-year stints as an associate manager and store manager at discount retailers Big Lots and Dollar General, respectively. She was born and raised in Chicago, where she worked as an activities coordinator for the homeless, and also worked with parents and kids in school systems in Wisconsin and North Carolina.
Omokaiye credits The Pantry for encouraging her to finish her education while working as a store sales manager. She achieved her bachelor's in liberal studies, with minors in business and education, in 2008 from Shaw University in Raleigh. She graduated Magna Cum Laude, she noted proudly, adding The Pantry is more focused on education and training than at any time since she joined the company.
She also likes the degree of autonomy she gets from the support center. "Corporate allows me to do anything that directly affects the store and the customers," said Omokaiye. "For example, if there's customer demand for an item we don't carry, I'll communicate that to corporate so we can get it. I also decide how the schedule is made."
Omokaiye said she loves managing people. "It's beautiful. You have to learn to tolerate the differences in people," she explained of her management philosophy. "Nobody gets to the same place in the same way. There are always different directions you can go, just as long as we all get to the same point."
She also believes in empowering her people. "I tell them: if they have an idea, go ahead with it. It if doesn't work, we'll let you know."
And that trust is tangibly rewarded. "Everybody plays a role in the success of the store. I call myself the team leader, not the manager. If we accomplish something, we do it as a team." Omokaiye even goes so far as to share financial bonuses she achieves with her team. "I bonus, we bonus," is her philosophy, she said.
Omokaiye's workday ends around 4 p.m., but, "I'm one of those managers who sticks around. In my mind, the day ends whenever the job is done after 4 p.m. I want everything to be perfect."
That strive for perfection is one reason why she gets along so famously with her district sales manager, Melody Haney (see story, page 50), and why Omokaiye was recently elevated to district sales manager in training and put in charge of the Fresh program in her district of the northern region for The Pantry.