White Collar Reset: Going to market

Investors who are furiously trying to divine the future of the economy in the stock and bond markets, the commodities market, the jobs market, the housing and commercial real estate markets may want to read the cabbage leaves in another market: the Rowayton Farmers' Market.

I first got tipped off to its import by a friend who lives in this impossibly cute former fishing village in the heart of southwestern Connecticut's "Gold Coast." Located just 45 miles north of Wall Street, Rowayton has been hit hard by the financial crisis (though perhaps not as hard as neighboring Darien). All along the wooded lanes and footpaths that wind toward the commuter rail station, For Sale and For Rent signs loom in front of new $2 million cedar-shingled mansions. Nowadays, passengers have little trouble finding a seat on the 6:15 A.M. into Grand Central; on the other hand, snagging a choice table in front of the deli down by the docks can require some serious maneuvering with out-of-work i-bankers and ad execs. Unless it's Friday, when everyone just heads to the newly re-branded, repositioned and reinvigorated farmers' market.

As it turns out, the same economic conditions that are poison for high-paying jobs on Wall Street and Madison Avenue are perfect for down-on-their-luck farmers' markets in need of new blood. Back in May, the nursery school teacher who had overseen the operation for years put a notice in the local paper announcing that she was looking for a successor. Maggie Trujillo, a consumer products executive who had recently lost her job with a major media start-up, saw the item and immediately called her jogging partner, Regina Matson, a market data division chief who had been laid off by Morgan Stanley. "I said, 'Why don't we do this,'" recalls Trujillo. "And Regina said, 'That's so funny you called, I was just thinking the same thing.'"

Now, three months later, Trujillo and Matson, both 49, have moved the market from its former location in a parking lot hidden behind the library to a more prominent spot at the main entrance to town. At the same time, the roster of vendors has expanded from two threadbare booths to some 25 of the region's most accomplished organic farmers, grass-fed beef purveyors, cheese and pickle makers, bakers and crafts people. Attendance has shot up roughly 3,000 percent.

This past Friday, despite real feel temperatures in the upper 90s, the market was its usual hive of activity and cheer. Although the acoustic guitarist who usually provides the sound track was on vacation, young mothers still lolled with their toddlers on blankets in the breeze blowing in off Long Island Sound. Matson's husband, Paul, a part-time real estate agent recently forced by the bust to restart his old film production company, sat in a folding chair under an enormous oak with a click counter, harvesting the data for Trujillo and Matson's various regression analyses. A third of the way in, his tally stood at 250 -- on track for another banner week.

Trujillo was also away, so Matson handled the introductions. One of the more popular stops was a new Indian food purveyor run by husband and wife Patrick and Adidi Sweeney. Earlier this summer, the Sweeneys, too, found themselves out of work, he from his moribund general contractor firm, she from a downsized business planning position with Playtex. "But we love to cook and entertain, and friends were always saying your food is so good, you really should do something with this," explained Aditi, a native of Calcutta. "Then one day I was walking past the park and saw the farmers' market and I told Patrick, 'Well, maybe we should just start here.'" The Sweeneys are now selling upwards of several hundred dollars of chutney, dal and simmer sauce a week. They've had discussions with area specialty food markets, and are exploring the possibility of leasing a refrigerated truck and parking it at the commuter rail stations during the pre-dinner rush.

It hasn't been all smooth sailing for Trujillo and Matson's merry band. Farmers' markets, apparently, are as rife with politics and intrigue as any Wall Street investment firm. Passionate slow-food enthusiasts sit cheek-by-jowl with a meal-in-a-cup smoothie stand. Grower-vendors cast a wary eye on other sellers who are suspected of pumping up their stock with the occasional crate from the wholesale produce center.

Matson and Trujillo are also still figuring out their business model. Farmers' markets in Connecticut have traditionally been strictly nonprofit affairs with a nominal vendor fee scale. As part of their vision for the turnaround, town commissioner Mike Barbis gave Trujillo and Matson a pass to run theirs as a for-profit enterprise. So far, it's been a distinction in search of a difference. "If you add up what we make and the time we're putting in, it's way less than minimum wage," says Matson.

Both remain convinced, however, that the potential is there. "This is a really hot field," Matson points out. "You can't open the pages of The New York Times (NYT) these days without seeing an article about greenmarkets or organic farming." Some of the more-for-profit ideas they've entertained include offering their services to neighboring towns, organizing farm dinners by celebrity chefs, and launching some sort incubator to help local purveyors extend their products' reach.

"It's all part of a much larger phenomenon," explains Trujillo. "The whole retail marketplace is changing. The more we talk to providers, the more we realize how many people are looking for alternative ways to sell their products outside the big traditional chains. It's, like, this huge grass-roots movement, with suppliers putting their products directly into the hands of consumers, the way it was 50 years ago."

Matson seems particularly confident about the future of the venture: two weeks ago, she received a call from an old colleague at Morgan Stanley offering what essentially amounted to her old V.P.-level job back. She turned it down. "It was hard. Believe me, I could use the money," she says, "but I just couldn't go back to that lifestyle. I was on the 6:15 A.M. and wasn't home until 8 at night. I never saw my daughter. She'd try to reach me during the day and sometimes I couldn't even talk to her.

"Plus, it was just everything we went through last fall -- the three rounds of layoffs, every day watching to see how far Morgan's stock would fall. Even though when your time finally comes you're like, C'mon, let's get this over with already, when it happens, it's humiliating. They take your ID and the security guard escorts you out and you're not allowed to go back to your desk. You feel like a loser. Right now, I just didn't want to risk going through all that again.

"I'm not sure yet exactly where Maggie and I will take this. There are so many seeds to it, so many different directions it can head. The market has a life of its own. We're still in the learning stages. I'm willing to just see where it goes."

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