BAR HARBOR, Maine — This season, the Hannaford in Bar Harbor is quiet, swarms of summer tourists nowhere to be found. The locals who do enter the store, though, on a weekday morning in March all seem to recognize one employee.
Nicole Cote has been working at this Hannaford location for 19 years, coming up on 20 years this summer. Short in stature but large in personality, Nicole is hard to miss, with a spunky pixie haircut and infectious laugh. She is back working full-time at the store as assistant manager of customer service, after returning from an exciting trip to San Diego.
"I had never been on a plane before this trip, so the whole thing was an adventure," Cote explained to NEWS CENTER Maine. She was flown out by Hannaford to San Diego for the National Grocers Association's 2020 Best Bagger Competition -- and won first place against more than two dozen other state champions.
That first place title came with a $10,000 prize. The first runner up won $5,000, while the second, third and fourth runner ups all went home with $1,000.
Recalling the exciting moment when she found out she won, Cote says she was in shock.
"I just threw my hands up, and I was super excited," Cote giggled. "I couldn't really believe that I was the winner."
Cote's co-workers, though, were not as surprised as she was. Bar Harbor Hannaford store manager, Jay Boyce, says he has called her 'Little Lightning' for a while now and is proud that Cote undertook such a stressful competition.
"It takes a lot of courage to do something like that, you know, with 500 people staring at you."
But the opportunity to put Bar Harbor on the map nationwide was worth it.
"We were counting down the days," Cara Ryan, a local Bar Harbor Hannaford customer, smiled. "I kept asking her, 'So when do you go?' And she's like, '32 days' and '26 days' -- and then it was a few days before and no more Nicole."
The competition was also live-streamed on Facebook, where people back home could watch in real time.
"I jumped up and down and screamed, 'She won, she won!'" Catherine Austin, finance supervisor at the Bar Harbor Hannaford, said about finding out her friend had come in first place.
So, what exactly does the competition entail? According to the NGA Best Bagger Championship handbook, each contestant bags identical grocery orders consisting of 30 to 38 commonly purchased items. Organizers may choose to do two rounds, each with different types of bags -- plastic and reusable -- to determine which bagger is the winner of their competition.
Winners are determined based on their speed, bag-building technique, weight distribution between bags, style, attitude, and appearance.
Read the Best Bagger Competition Handbook below:
To be eligible to compete in the competition, all baggers must have a non-managerial title, role, and set of responsibilities. Additionally, baggers who are 20 years old or younger must attend the competition with a chaperone who is at least 21 years old.
The first Best Bagger Competition took place in 1983, and that winner received $1,983. The last time a Hannaford associate took home the first place prize was in 2011 when Krystal Smith of Vermont won the distinction.