Meet Christina Martinez: Kitchen Manager

Christina Martinez is the kitchen manager in our Encino store. She’s worked there on and off during the 25 years she’s been with Gelson’s, and she says it’s her favorite store because she loves seeing all the families that come in to shop. “There’s a baseball field up the street, so we get a lot of moms in the store,” she says. “They shop here, they see their neighbors here, and they stop to talk, so it’s like a market and community place. You know, there’s a lot of fellowship in the store.”

In her mind, that’s just how it should be. “I want everyone who comes here to feel welcome, like it’s their neighborhood grocery store,” she says. “I know everybody’s name — if they’ve been here three or four times I do — and I always say hello, how are you doing, nice to see you again. Sometimes they’re surprised that we remember them, but I think everyone wants to be recognized. I know I like that.”

That warm welcome is part of the culture of Gelson’s, Christina says, and it’s one of the things that’s kept her here for so long. “When our president comes to the store, he always says hi to me,” she says. “It means a lot that our management knows who we are, they appreciate us, and they put a name to a face. I try to give that to the people that work for me and our customers — to show them that I appreciate that they’re here.”

If you’ve ever run into Christina in the store, you know that being friendly and helpful is not a huge stretch for her — she’s pretty much the ultimate people person. And customer service is something she spends a lot of time thinking about.

When she came to interview at Gelson’s back in 1995, she was hoping for a job as a checker. “But they offered me a job in the Gelson’s Kitchen,” she says. “I didn’t even know what lox was — it’s amazing what you can learn over the years.”

She started on the counter, serving customers. “I really enjoyed the counter,” she says, “I liked the flexible hours and the fact that you’re never in one spot — you’re in the front, you’re in the back, you’re interacting with customers.”

“Thinking back on it, I never would have survived standing still behind the cash register,” she adds, laughing. “In the deli, business is booming, you’re moving around, and your day goes by so quick.” Over the years, she’s done just about every job in the Gelson’s Kitchen, from counter to cook to manager. As the kitchen manager, her role is diverse. There’s a little bit of paperwork, she’ll help set up the cases and talk through the specials with the cooks, and spend some time helping customers. But most of her day is spent mentoring her team and coaching them on customer service.

When we ask what great customer service means to her and how she teaches it, we expect an overarching philosophy, instead she gives us an anecdote — about handing a customer the wrong order. “My manager didn’t yell at me for goofing up,” she says. “Instead, they explained how to do it. Next time, repeat the order to the customer before you hand it to them. I’ve had some fantastic managers that put a lot of time and effort into me and made me the manager that I am today, but I’ll never forget that. I learned that there’s a way to deliver a message, and I try to deliver it in the most positive way.”

For Christina, the difference between Gelson’s and other deli counters is the combination of fresh ingredients, beautiful food, and great people. “You can go anywhere and buy stuff,” she says, “but you can’t get what you get here: people who care, who enjoy their jobs, and who are selling something that they’re proud of, something of quality, something we made here.”

She talks about how the salmon comes into the store fresh every morning and they poach it in the deli kitchen, and all the salads are made with the same fresh fruits and vegetables they carry in the store. “Some places open up a bucket and put the food in the case,” she says. “We’ve got chefs in the back chopping vegetables and grilling chicken. It’s not fast food or takeout; it’s nutritious and fresh, and it tastes like something you’d buy and cook at home — but you know, if you don’t have time, let us cook it for you.”

What’s Christina’s favorite thing to take home from the Gelson’s Kitchen? “Crunchy kale salad!” she says. “I never thought I’d be eating kale. But you taste it, and you open your mind. My palate has really matured since I started here — I eat so many more vegetables. I’m so lucky that I get to experience all the fine foods we offer.”

But delicious food is only a small part of what she loves about her job, she says, circling back, as she has so many times in our interview, to her coworkers and her team in the Gelson’s Kitchen. “I’ve had so many wonderful people work for me. Of course, that means they get promoted to other departments. Sometimes, I feel like, ‘Hey, that’s my best person,’ and I want to keep them all to myself, but it’s great to see them get those opportunities and move up.”

Christina says the best part of her day is coming in and saying good morning to everybody. “That’s my thing: I visit with all the people who work with me, and say hello and good morning, and I thank them. It makes me feel good, like I’m out and about, even though I’m at work.”

“We’re like a little family back here,” she adds. “Part of that is that some of us have worked here a long time, but it’s also just a very welcoming, family-oriented culture. We’re respectful of each other, and you know, we all get along pretty darn good, I must say.”