Erin Graham, ’06, was 15 when she got her first job in the hospitality industry at a local restaurant. She enjoyed the work so much that she wanted to open her own restaurant one day.
To achieve that goal, she enrolled in Niagara University’s College of Hospitality and Tourism Management, where she gained a basic understanding of the different areas of the industry, including food and beverage and hotel and restaurant management, in her classes and through an internship with Hilton. She was also a student-athlete at Niagara, playing as a four-year starter on the NU volleyball team (and one of the Purple Eagles memorialized on banners that were installed on the outside of the university’s Gallagher Center).
Coming from a small town in Western New York, Erin wanted to “expand her horizons” after graduation. The day after she crossed the stage to receive her degree, she drove to Miami, where she had accepted a job as a food and beverage manager for three restaurant outlets within the Loews Hotel Miami Beach.
Four years later, she moved to Texas, where she managed Leon's Steakhouse Saloon in Longview, a Texas honky-tonk-style steakhouse seating more than 400 guests and featuring live music and dancing. The long hours, weekends, and holidays she worked became difficult to manage once she gave birth to twin girls, so she reached out to her district sales representative from Sysco Foods, the world’s largest food and beverage distributor, to inquire about opportunities with that organization.
“The distribution side of the industry was something I had always been interested in, and with my education and experience at the operator level, they hired me pretty quickly,” she said.
She began as a marketing associate at Sysco East Texas and was promoted six times during the eight years she worked for Sysco, ultimately holding the position of senior national account manager, retail division. While her earlier roles enabled her to work directly with independent operators, her last two promotions were with Sysco Corporate, where her responsibilities were on a national scale.
In December 2021, a recruiter reached out to her with an intriguing opportunity to join Pomegranate Technologies (more commonly known as Pepper), a start-up that builds e-commerce solutions for food distributors and is leading the charge in bringing food distribution into the 21st century.
The job was the perfect fit, because it let her draw on her experience at both the operator level and in distribution, as well as on her early career learnings, to help cultivate the way the food distribution industry goes to market by capitalizing on user-friendly, revenue generating technology.
In her current role, as vice president of operations and strategy at Pepper, Erin manages strategic partnerships with large buying groups like UniPro Foodservice Inc., as well as with the International Foodservice Distributors Association. She works with food service distributors all over the US, Mexico, Canada, and the UK to launch the platform, which is endorsed by all major buying groups in the industry, and trains distributors’ teams to leverage this complete solution for their business.
“I’m very passionate about what we do, and it gives me the opportunity to get back to doing what I love, which is providing solutions to an industry that is constantly evolving,” she said. “This job brought everything full circle, and I can use my knowledge to really help other people in their business. I am thankful for the education I received at Niagara University, which fueled my passion for the industry and allows me to continue impacting the future of food service.”
Sports, also, remains a passion for Erin, who coaches her twin daughters’ volleyball, basketball, and softball teams and invests as much time in her kids and community sports programs as she does in her career.