SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Nicole Cote played it cool on stage at the San Diego Convention Center Monday evening as she and her four fellow finalists in the National Grocers’ Association’s Best Bagger Contest waited to hear which of them would win it all.
An Ellsworth resident, Cote works at the Bar Harbor Hannaford. She won the trip to San Diego when she took first place at the Maine Grocers’ Association’s bagging contest in South Portland last September.
At the national contest this week, the master of ceremonies interviewed the contestants to kill time while the judges were busy in the back evaluating each bagger’s work. Each had filled a reusable grocery bag with staples including bread, eggs, pickles, mustard, Rice a Roni, juice, oats and canned vegetables. Judging criteria include speed, bag building technique and distribution of weight.
Finally, the wait was over. Cote threw her arms in the air in a “woohoo!” when she was announced as the 2020 Best Bagger Champion.
She danced around with the trophy, and kept grooving to the upbeat trade-show music even while holding her end of the giant prize check for $10,000 with several executives from the grocery trade group and event sponsor Pepsico.
“The whole trip has been crazy,” Cote said in a phone interview Tuesday morning. She and her husband Mike, who joined her on the trip, “have a few things in mind” for how to use the $10,000 prize. “But we’re going to think about what we’re gonna do and plan wisely for that.”
The plans probably will include a family vacation, though. The blended family includes two teenagers and two adult children, a son-in-law and a brand-new granddaughter.
The kids at home watched the competition on Facebook Live. There were 22 contestants overall and five heats of competition. Judges chose the top five for the final round, which was broadcast and streamed live.
As the baggers worked, a Gloria Gaynor version of “The Heat is On” played.
Cote said the reusable bag she was working with was “a little smaller than (a) Hannaford bag, but I guess it was equivalent to the size of a paper bag.”
The judges said her bags were perfect.
“My favorite secret is to keep the glass jar in the middle of the bag,” she said. “And the rules are only one jar per bag, so there’s no chance of them touching.” Also, “weight distribution is key, building a base in the bottom of the bag.”
Cote grew up in Millinocket and began working at the Hannaford store there 19 years ago. Then she moved to Ellsworth and spent 10 years at that store. She’s been at the Bar Harbor Hannaford, where she helps train new front-end associates, for four years.
And when one of her sons worked at the Ellsworth Hannaford this past summer, “I taught him everything he needs to know.”
Neither Cote nor her husband had ever flown in a plane before the trip to Bar Harbor.
“It was quite an experience,” she said. “A lot of people gave us pointers and hints and explained what would happen.” The most useful tip was that chewing gum helps the ears adjust to changes in pressure.
On Monday, they explored downtown San Diego and visited the USS Midway, but then took it easy for the afternoon before the big competition.
The day after the big e vent, she talked with the Islander while waiting for the Balboa Park Zoo to open. She was particularly excited to see the koalas.
Cote is taking the sudden fame in stride.
“You can definitely find me on the internet now!” she laughs. “Thank you to the whole community for watching and supporting me.”
So: When shopping for her own groceries, does she do the bagging herself, or take the chance to let somebody else do it?
“About half and half. It depends on where I’m at.”