It takes a smart lady to start and run a group called Smart Markets — and Jean Janssen of Fairfax is just that lady. In only five years, she has taken the farmers’ market concept and, as a private citizen, started a series of successful markets. Most are dedicated to helping small local farmers, but even private food producers, such as bakers, barbecue masters, and cheese-makers can profit. Why? The Smart Markets are logistically located to help both consumer and farmer/producer maximize their market experience, Janssen says.
How did this all come about, especially in an era when county-run markets have sprung up in many local townships? Janssen says that the food world has always played a central role in her life. “My interest in food started probably at home,” she said, adding that her mother, her father, and one of her grandmothers have been big-time cooks and bakers. “I often had to help cook with my grandmother, so when we visited and spent a summer with her, there was always a lot of good food.”
Coming from an all-Mennonite family, much of what members ate was old-time German dishes.
In addition, when living in Harrisonburg, the family ate farm-fresh foods.
“We ate from a farm,” she said. “My grandfather had a huge garden, so all this farm food comes naturally.”
Janssen also spent time cooking with her Aunt Paige, who urged her to try out new recipes, and later, introduced Janssen to Gourmet magazine.
“One of the first things I did after I was married was to buy a Gourmet ... and then subscribe,” she said. “And then for many years, I tried to make something new every night.” It is not surprising, then, that Janssen and her siblings have ended up in the food world.
As an adult, Janssen started a catering business, and even opened a food shop called Janssen’s Temptations in Arlington. She said that she picked up many of her fresh ingredients from the nearby Fairfax County farmers’ market, located at the time at Nottoway Park in Vienna. “When I sold my shop and began to cut back on the catering business, the county was looking for a new market manager as a volunteer,” she said. She accepted the challenge, and ended up managing a second county market at Wakefield Park in Annandale. “I managed both for two more years.”
But when Fairfax County changed its farmers’ market focus more on the consumer and not the farmer, Janssen decided to try her hand at her own brand of farmers’ markets. Besides, she said, the county did not spend any time or money marketing their markets, not only as farmers’ venues as well as a community gathering place and a melting pot of cultural diversity.
That was back in 2008, just at the point when the privately held FRESHfarm Market group who initiated the Dupont Circle Market had gained such popularity. “So I talked to the ladies who ran the market, and did a lot of research online, ” she said. “And they gave me a lot of guidance. I wanted my vendors to earn more money. Nowadays if a farm has fewer than 100 acres, the farmer needs to have access to a market or to a restaurant. Most of farmers need help to do that.”
Starting small, Janssen has just added markets each year, closing some, opening others, and moving some around. To date, Janssen operates six markets, including Oakton, Reston, Springfield, Lorton, Manassas Park, and Bristow. The oldest is in Oakton, where the brand has earned a very loyal following. The biggest and the one with the most vendors, however, is in Reston, with a location that is at the corner of Reston Parkway and Sunrise Valley Drive.
Looking ahead to 2014, Janssen says the Smart Markets will have a total of eight locations, with a possible two experimental mini-farmers’ markets that offers farmers-only vendors. For more information, check out the website at www.smartmarkets.org.