“Right place, right time,” is how Trish Pohanka chalks up her long and fruitful career in the specialty food industry. For decades she worked for importing companies in the Chicagoland area, seeking unique items from around the world. Her current job is a fresh adventure, serving as vice president of sales and business development at WaterBox LLC. The niche company, based in Brea, California, packages North American spring water in eco-conscious boxes with the goal of reducing plastic in the ocean and environment as consumers are persuaded to make the switch from single-serve plastic bottles.
Thanks to studying French (and political science) at St. Lawrence University, Pohanka’s journey in the food world began when she answered an ad from a small importer looking for someone with a knowledge of French. The experience later led her to join European Imports Ltd. where she remained for 26 years, working in purchasing and marketing, though her favorite responsibility was searching the globe for international products that would resonate with American consumers. Launching successful sales strategies for balsamic pearls, French macarons, and strong cheeses were among her many accomplishments during her tenure. She also found time to earn an MBA at Chicago’s Loyola University, with a concentration in marketing and international business.
“They let me grow with them and create my own job,” Pohanka, 61, says fondly of European Imports. “I was blessed to be able to travel to Israel, Korea, Japan, Australia, England, and all over Europe, experiencing different cultures.” At trade shows, she went with her gut, she says, rather than testing the market. She instinctively knew what would get chefs and retailers excited back in the U.S.
Before joining WaterBox in 2020, Pohanka took a year off to go on cruises, spend time in Italy, and do some consulting. Mentoring others has long been important to her, sharing her insight on packaging and strategic marketing as well as how to sell to foodservice clients. For the Specialty Food Association, she has volunteered countless hours for educational events and share groups and twice served on the board of directors.
WaterBox is a good fit, she says. Its co-founders, LeeAnn Powers and Steve Weymer, create an atmosphere that’s respectful, relationship-driven, and fun. More than 300 co-branding customers have come on board for their 100 percent recyclable cartons, the water sourced from Mount Shasta, California, and Blue Springs, Georgia, with naturally occurring minerals and no additional processing. They have developed private labels for Four Seasons, The Langham Hotels and Resorts, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Tyra Banks, among others. The company’s own H2ONEST brand is available via various distributors in outlets such as Sunshine Foods, in Minnesota and South Dakota; Fresh Foods, in Nebraska; and Tony’s Finer Foods, in the Chicagoland area.
“It’s great to make a difference, seeing a company grow and thrive,” Pohanka says, “and to go to work and be happy about what you’re doing.”