Coastal Contrast: Alexis Jenssen // Apex Farmers Market // Apex, NC
by Megan Crist
City: Apex, NC
What is your working title? Executive Director & Market Manager
You have been with the Apex Farmers Market for a little over a year? Can you tell me how you arrived in this career position? Has your sense of purpose evolved since you started?
When we moved here from Oregon, we spent a lot of time visiting towns in the Raleigh area looking to buy a home somewhere. We specifically sought out the local farmers markets to get a feel for the communities and the residents themselves. We discovered Apex with it’s magical downtown and a farmers market that really reflected a warm and fun community. I pulled up their website to get more info about the organization and see their schedule etc to discover that they were hiring a market manager. My work experience of directing non-profits, owning businesses and also doing small business consulting checked off the experiential boxes for this position but my personal passion for food and community engagement really made this a dream job for me!
I have learned so much this year, and after having a full market season under my belt, I have witnessed that our market reaches so much farther than the Depot parking lot on Saturday mornings. We are an engagement experience that feeds the entire community. They carry that home with them, along with their bags of delicious goodies. They make memories at our market. They learn how to cook. How to eat. How to nurture themselves and their family at our market. My purpose is to continue to grow the impact and the life of our market within our community.
I love the Apex Market. It’s so well curated and concise. I think like a lot of markets have a bigger is better perspective, and it’s great to have choices, but often it can feel redundant. What attracted you to this industry? Can you talk about how you became interested in food?
I feel like I have always appreciated good food. My family is a food family. I grew up eating really healthy food, shopping at local co-op grocers and farmers markets. Good food was always our family’s indulgence. Multiple meals a week were spent with extended family in my house and I believe that cemented the value of food beyond nutrition. As I grew up I began to see that not everyone ate like we did. As a child, I would visit friends homes and at meal time they would serve food from boxes and bags and it was genuinely foreign to me. I didn’t recognize the flavors, it just didn’t taste like the food I knew. As an adult I have observed the same thing. Food being treated as a costly necessity to staying alive instead of an opportunity to feel great and connect with the people you love. Food can be celebrated! That is really what has brought me here, my desire to share the idea of food as a conduit for connection and vehicle of expression.
Yes! That’s awesome. So, how do your values translate into your job? What does “food and drink” mean to you?
Food and drink is what is on the table that can be shared. Food and drink bring people together. Food and drink sustain us all. Food and drink builds bridges between cultures and people.
I agree. It’s amazing the connections that can be made through meals.
Okay, tell me about your regular workday -if you have one.
Ha. Hmmmm... I work from home with my two kids. I am in my pajamas a great deal of the day. I try and get all my computer work out of the way early in the day so I can get onto the fun stuff of talking and engaging with our community. Some days I get to go out and meet with local business owners, or visit a farm. Some days I am in meetings with the town or downtown businesses. Some days I’m in the kitchen cooking meals with our vendors ingredients, taking photos and sharing all the possibilities that can come from a market meal! Market days, I’m hauling tents and tables, shuffling vendors, dodging cars and setting up band [stands].
Do you feel like you have faced any unique challenges as a woman in this field?
I’m not sure that my challenges are unique, I anticipate that the challenges I’ve faced specifically as an Executive Director and as a Market Manager are similar to the challenges all women face when they hold highly visible positions in which they are “in-charge”. In the big picture, I feel very supported by our community. I truly feel that AND... I do encounter some people, both men and women, actually, who I can see hold a genuine conflict in their head and hearts when it comes to taking guidance from a woman. I simply don’t fit into their paradigm of an authoritative figure and they just dismiss me.
Since you moved from Oregon, has the south, especially Raleigh-Durham, influenced your direction? Does living here have an impact on your ideas, opportunities, and/or progress?
Coming from a very liberal area, we were concerned about what we would find here. We knew on paper that Raleigh was a “progressive” area, but progressive for the South? What did that mean?
When we arrived, I saw immediately that my husband and I stuck out like a sore thumb. We are tattooed, heavily by Southern standards, we look very different and I was very concerned about this. However, in every situation we find ourselves, we are greeted with nothing but warmth. Our family was immediately welcomed with open arms and taken in as kin when we arrived to Apex. I look around at the grocery store, or at the local pub, or just strolling at the park... I hear different languages spoken, I see people from different religions, different ethnicities and varying economic backgrounds and we are all shoulder to shoulder sharing these spaces and getting one another with a smile. I am learning about people and cultures that are new to me. This is a beautiful place to be and I hope that I can spread this concept of acceptance with people I meet.
Are there any vivid differences between the two coasts/cities in terms of food culture?
The fast food is the first and most obvious I see. To be honest, fast food was strongly discouraged where I lived. You would very rarely see a line outside of McDonalds like you see here at BoJangles on a Sunday morning! Although, those spicy chicken sandwiches are insanely delicious and absolutely have their place on my plate on occasion. In the time I have been here I have observed a shift in paradigm about food. This history of food, the origin of recipes, the value of ingredients that exists here is so distinct from the approach on the West Coast. Not a good, bad thing. It’s just so different. I have a profound appreciation for the food here and I try to bring that to work with me.
Is there anyone who has supported your professional and creative endeavors in a unique way?
My husband is my greatest cheerleader. He has wholeheartedly supported each and every seemingly crazy venture I have proposed. Form a wine tasting business to a children's toy store to an art school. My husband jumps right on board. He works really hard to let me spread my wings.
In what ways do you gage success? Can you tell me about one moment or event when you felt especially successful in your profession?
I get to share my success with my board and my vendors. My success is deeply tied into theirs. When a vendor tells me they had a really great day at the market, that is a success to me. Our market continuing to grow with vendors and visitors and our vendors’ businesses continuing to grow and expand... that is a success to me. I can’t think of one distinct moment, but a collection of happenings that really fill me with pride. The Town of Apex asked me to join the downtown steering committee, a local pub asked me to come and speak about our organization at a community roundtable gathering, local businesses approaching us eager to support our organization. These all make me feel like I’m on really on the right path.
What kind of action do you take to maintain yourself personally so that you can sustain momentum professionally?
I make good food. HA! That is my ME time. Cooking dinner for my family is how I feed my soul. I am a painter, and cooking a meal is the closest thing to a few hours in the studio...and at the end I get to eat my art which is very exciting to me.
What excites you about working in the agriculture industry today? Are there any trends that you particularly love or dislike?
The slow food movement and the growing awareness of the benefits of eating organically grown produce are really big to me. These concepts are getting into the mainstream and I think that’s great. I am not a fan of buying food online. I know and appreciate the value of it, I totally get it. The impersonality and the loss of money in the community is disappointing.
Can you mention one or two women working in food today that you particularly admire? What is it about them or their work that begets your admiration?
I really, really love Vivian Howard. She has been the voice of my food journey here in the South. I watched her before we came here and absolutely fell in love with her. I will be so embarrassed if she were to read this! Ha! I love that her leaving home created an appreciation of home for her. I love her study of the local ingredients, the history of them and the value the hold now. I love her recipes, they tell the story of Southern tradition and also the life of the South today. She embraces the past and the present and marries tradition and progress. I think it’s really beautiful.
What are three qualities or characteristics that you possess which helped you get where you are today?
I do not believe anything is impossible.
I believe “No” is only the answer when people just need more information.
I value the skills of the people around me.
In what other line of work would you excel if you weren’t doing what you’re doing now?
I like to believe that I’d make a great mid-wife! If I had all the time in the world, I would train to become a mid-wife. I love opportunities to support and buoy people, and the idea of being the foundation that provides support to a person as they bring life into this world sounds like a great way to spend your days.
Oh you would be so great at that! -Probably for some of the same reasons that you are so exceptional in your current position.
What is your favorite thing to cook or bake?
I’m not a baker really, it is too precise for me I think. I really love to cook latin inspired foods. Street tacos are probably my favorite thing. It is an all day meal prep, I start to slow cook the meat in the morning. Slice and pickle vegetables, cook up some peppers to make a sauce, then come the tortillas. -They have to be homemade. I usually hand this task off to my daughter, she's an excellent tortilla maker. Street tacos are clean and fresh and lovely and so much of the fun is when all the food gets to the table; everybody shares plates, and paasses ingredients to builds their tacos just as they like them. It is an engaging experience that just speaks to me about what food should be!
Oh yummy. I love tacos. Homemade tortillas are the best! -What is your favorite local restaurant?
Brewery Bhavana. The atmosphere is absolutely dreamy, the food is indulgent and just warms my soul. The beer is unique and delicious.
I haven’t been there yet. I don’t know what I’m waiting for!
Last question… What is the one item you use for your job that you couldn’t do without?
My apron. At any given time, I’ve got my market map for the week to help direct our vendors and guests at set up, I’ve got loads of pens to take down information from vendors and/or shoppers, I have my phone on me to answer calls and to take pictures and capture video to post on social platforms and incorporate into our website. My apron keeps all the tools I need close at hand each market!