If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like behind the scenes at a busy restaurant, talk to Amy Forbis. She likens the experience to a symphony, where everyone has a part to execute perfectly and on time. When that happens, it’s no longer just a meal. It’s a masterpiece.
As executive chef for the newly formed Retail segment of Hormel Foods, Amy occasionally misses the rush of that particular brand of busyness. And yet, her current job is hardly without its highs. Every day, every challenge is different, she says.
About 60% of her role involves account meetings, where she demonstrates her knack for understanding retailers’ challenges and her ability to help address them. She’s also a visionary with a keen sense of where food and flavors are going. For example, she can show a retailer how to use Hormel Foods products, including the vast array available to the company’s foodservice customers, to invigorate a deli or prepared-food area, or connect merchandising opportunities across the store. Indeed, she brings all that to the table, but meeting to meeting, it’s never the same approach.
“It has to be balance between trends and being relatable to the store,” she says. “One retailer might cater to consumers who are food savvy, but for another, targeting long-standing core customers might call for products that are more comfort driven. It’s always about understanding the account … it’s about creating relationships.” When she hits those high notes – as she often does – it’s music to her ears.
Amy also works with Hormel Foods marketing pros on concept work and takes time to impart some of her culinary chops on sales team members. “What can I do to allow them to present the products without me there?” she says, referring to programs she’s creating that walk the sales team through the steps to success for a food-forward meeting. A certified charcutier as well, she is called in on myriad special events at Hormel Foods and well beyond. The Taste of the NFL, an annual fundraising foodfest staged before football’s championship Sunday, and working with Celebrity Chef Carla Hall to treat school-cafeteria workers are recent examples.
Amy is based in North Carolina, living and working about 30 minutes from her childhood home, and not far from the university where she majored in professional writing and Middle Eastern societies.
Upon graduating from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, she signed on with the North Carolina Tennis Association. Her job was to run community and youth programs. So, as her days were filled with new experiences and the charge of starting a career, Amy’s time at home was increasingly wiled away in the kitchen.
“I started cooking crazy dishes at home,” she laughs. “I was becoming obsessed with food.”
Traveling with the tennis association opened her eyes to regional fare. Like the time she went to Phoenix and realized people there have the good fortune of having tortillas at every meal.
While she was loving her job, she was loving cooking even more. It makes sense. Her mother cooked, and Amy’s grandmother, a preacher’s wife, was an avid baker. When she succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, Amy found boxes of recipes she had jotted down on receipts, church bulletins and scraps of paper. Amy digitized them and made a book for her family.
“Cooking was always a big part of our lives,” she says.
So, at 24, Amy was accepted at the acclaimed Johnson & Wales University and began working for the privilege of wearing the chef’s whites. She excelled in culinary school, making dean’s list each semester and graduating summa cum laude – literally “with the highest praise.”
She attributes her success in part to being older and more mature than a traditional undergrad. “I had a focus that maybe wasn’t there for everybody.”
Amy spent time in Italy, and she cooked in restaurants whose kitchens tended to be filled with men. It wasn’t necessarily a bad experience; after all, that’s where she met her husband, Aaron. And yet, the imbalance was hard to overlook. Only once did she work with another woman, but the experience of most often being the only female toughened her up, she says.
“You figure out how to stick up for yourself. It shows you something you maybe didn’t know you had in you.” It’s changing now, she adds. More women are coming into the profession, and the old traditions are giving way to a new day.
Amy’s career shifted as well. She left restaurant cooking about 10 years ago to join Columbus Craft Meats, a century-old purveyor of Italian salami, and artisanal and deli meats. When the company was acquired by Hormel Foods in 2017, Amy signed on for more challenges.
By all accounts, it was made to order. Amy has been steadily promoted and has earned industry accolades as well. For instance, the International Deli, Dairy Bakery Association and Winsight Grocery Business named her a Champion of Change, an award designed to recognize those who are making a mark – and a difference – in their stores, companies and communities. She is also a mom now to Isabelle, 6; and Sam, 2.
As any working parent will tell you, childrearing is a game-changer, but Amy and Aaron are in tune.
“It takes a lot of work,” Amy offers. “But having the freedom of working from home allows me to catch up and focus when I return from a trip. When I’m home, I’m really invested, and I do a lot of work to set them up for success when I’m not home. Plus, my husband is amazing.” When she’s in a restaurant these days, it’s always in the front of the house, and that suits Amy well. She’s found her recipe for success – and happiness.
“I have incredible pride to be part of the Culinary Collective for Hormel Foods. I love my job … where it’s at and where we’re going.”