In 1998, Melanie Gitlin joined Fayetteville, N.C.-based Thompson & Little as an administrative assistant not knowing what she would become just 12 years later.

dsr1802 MelanieMelanie GitlinFour-and-a-half years later, Gitlin left Thompson & Little  to start a family, not returning until 2010 to assist part-time with marketing. At that time, her late husband Adam had been working at Thompson & Little for the last decade. It was due to his encouragement and support that Melanie took the leap into sales.

She expanded the company's territory into South Carolina, visiting K-12 foodservice directors and building her business organically. "I decided to take on the entire state and ran with it," she says.

FE&S: You work with lots of school foodservice operators. What's the biggest challenge they face today?

MG: Many have expressed that they don't have a lot of school lunch participation, and this impacts their funding. While this is partially about the food, it's also due to old, outdated and institutional equipment. I'm working with a school right now to revamp their serving area. They have 850 kids and only 190 participate in the school lunch program.

FE&S: What connects you to the South Carolina market?

MG: I love North Carolina and I'm from there, but there's something about South Carolina. They're so down to earth, friendly and personable, so it makes my job easy. I only handle smallwares in North Carolina, as our other sales person handles equipment in that state.

FE&S: You often write the quote, issue the purchase order and handle all the other project logistics. What's the key to keeping it all straight?

MG: There's a method to my madness. Even though I'm surrounded by piles of papers, I'm fully aware of what's going on and keep on top of everything. I do have a laptop, so when I'm at home or on the road, I can follow up. We recently hired help, since sales have grown, so selling has been more of a focus than the administrative side.

FE&S: You pride yourself on being very responsive. How does that help?

MG: When I started getting into the K-12 segment, it took time to get customers to contact me when they needed quotes. Going out on the visits definitely helped me get e-mail responses. When K-12 directors ask for a quote, they needed it two days prior. My responsiveness has definitely been beneficial and gives me a leg up.

FE&S: Product knowledge has become a cornerstone of your success. How do you build that up?

MG: I've attended SEFA training, which provides a lot of great information. I take notes, and many times the manufacturers give us thumb drives with their presentations. But it has to be repetitive to soak in. One of my goals this year is to go out with the installers, as on-the-job training works as the best method for me.

FE&S: What excites you about the future of the foodservice industry?

MG: What's exciting is that it's always changing and is not boring. I was talking to my 18-year-old niece and told her I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life until about six years ago, when I started selling. It's not something I ever thought I'd do, but it's completely different than any other type of selling. I enjoy it and am excited to learn more.