Mary Ellen Burris of Wegmans retires, wins award

Mary Ellen Burris of Wegmans retires, wins award

After almost half a century, Mary Ellen Burris has retired from Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets as senior vice president of consumer affairs.

Burris received the Distinguished Service Citation award at a Facebook Live video event Jan. 7, part of the virtual New York State Agricultural Society Forum, themed “Building Resiliency in our Food System.”

She was the 78th honoree of the award, which recognizes a person who dedicated a lifetime of service that resulted in outstanding contributions to New York agriculture.

“Mary Ellen, you’ve had quite a career: 49 years serving Wegmans and the community,” said Hans Kunze, past president of the New York State Agricultural Society, before presenting her with the award.

But Burris pointed out that she worked in agriculture before her time at Wegmans as well: She began her career as a Cooperative Extension agent and educator in New Jersey and later in Monroe County, N.Y.

A native of West Virginia, Burris earned a bachelor’s degree at West Virginia University and a master’s degree in educational psychology from the University of Rochester.

In 1971, Burris joined the Wegmans team as its 918th employee, she said.

“What I came to see was true was their different approach. They asked me to write a job description: What would I do if I came to work for Wegmans? And, they would pay me for writing the job description ­— $250. You know, that was a lot of money in 1971,” she said.

Today, the chain has grown from 33 stores in New York to 104 stores and 50,000 employees in seven states.

In her tenure dotted with achievements in food safety, quality assurance and sustainability efforts, she promoted the value of fresh produce to consumers by writing thousands of articles in weekly store fliers.

“When I went to work at Wegmans, I could just see the stories that could be told about where food came from. Now that I was in the company, I knew the story. I talked to our produce people, particularly produce, and I was just dying to share that information. So in early 1972, I began to write this column, and I did for many years,” she said.

She established a Strive for Five educational program about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables for good health, and she advocated for buying local produce where and when possible.

“The connections that I have to agriculture are longstanding. I have a lot of friends who are growers,” Burris said.

Marked with logistical hurdles at the time, including smaller farm trucks using traditional distribution docks, Wegmans has shaped its brand around purchasing locally produced, fresh foods.

Burris also joined other organizations outside of work to help different causes.

She’s past president of the United Way of Rochester and serves on the advisory council to the Center for Urban School Success at the University of Rochester’s Warner Graduate School of Education.

She’s participated in the Board of Healing Connection, which advocates for work on eating disorders, and Food Link, which helps get to those with less access, while reducing food waste.

Her personal accolades include the Esther Peterson Award from the Food Marketing Institute and the NY State of Mind Chairman’s Award from the New York Wine and Culinary Center.

In 2018, Burris received the Charles Force Hutchinson and Marjorie Smith Hutchinson Medal from the University of Rochester, the highest honor awarded to an alumnus of the school.

“Mary Ellen played a pivotal role in helping our family to write down our philosophy and values decades ago,” chairman Danny Wegman said in the forum program book. “In doing so, she made an impact on our company that will last for generations to come. She always asked the right questions and raised important considerations to ensure our actions were taken with our people and customers top of mind.”

The video of Burris’ award acceptance and interview in her solarium at home in Rush, N.Y., is on YouTube.