Nicole Cote played it cool Monday evening on stage at the San Diego Convention Center 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 in September.

Nicole Cote of Ellsworth, left, became the national champion in grocery bagging Monday in San Diego. National Grocers Association photo

At the national contest this week, contestants had to fill 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.

When it was announced that Cote was the 2020 Best Bagger Champion, she threw her arms in the air in a “woohoo!” As champion, Cote received a $10,000 prize.

“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.”

Cote said the reusable bag that contestants had to fill 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.”

Neither Cote nor her husband had ever flown in a plane before the trip to San Diego.

“It was quite an experience,” she said. “A lot of people gave us pointers and hints.” The most useful tip was that chewing gum helps the ears adjust to changes in pressure.

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.”

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