Alan Zaback of Z Food Farm, 31 & Main farmers market manager Les Summiel, and David Zaback, owner of Z Food Farm, celebrate the grand opening of the market at Campus Town last June. (File photo by Fernando Lopez.)

Leslie Summiel Jr. was minding his own business at a YMCA event in Trenton when two women approached him. He’d never met them, but they had a plan—they wanted him to run a new farmers market they were launching in Ewing.

Summiel wasn’t even a 100 percent on what a farmers market was. But not being the type to dismiss good opportunities, he said yes. He had “the soft skills” needed to be the face of the market, he said; the women had the hard business skills to run the behind-the-scenes stuff.

About six weeks later (last June), the 31 & Main Farmers Market opened right where its name implies — at the intersection of Route 31 and East Main Boulevard in Campus Town at The College of New Jersey.

Now in its second year, the market will be open every Sunday from June 11 through Oct. 29, rain or shine, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

This year the market has moved from the center’s south parking lot to the Campus Town Clock Tower Square.

To say the meeting between Summiel, Chris Cirkus and Beth Feehan was a bit of divine inspiration isn’t far from how Summiel feels about having met them.

“I think they were heaven-sent,” he said.

To understand the weight of that sentiment requires looking at 31 & Main through two prisms, one as a business and the other as a social and community endeavor; the hard skills vs. the soft, if you will, and the interplay between the two.

The idea for 31 & Main started with Cirkus, a West Windsor resident who has managed the West Windsor Farmers Market on Saturdays for seven years.

She also helped open the Greenwood Avenue Farmers Market in Trenton, which is open Mondays. Ewing on Sundays seemed an ideal wedge between those two days, and the township seemed to Cirkus fittingly ripe for a place to build a community-oriented farmers market.

Cirkus said the diversity of the township and the fact that it had no existing farmers market were major draws. She and Feehan got in contact with Campus Centers LLC, an affiliate of the PRC Group, based in Long Branch, which developed and owns the Campus Town complex—a mixed use development of retail and student housing.

She said the developer very much wanted to launch a farmers market on its site, and they decided she would be best behind the scenes, along with Feehan, getting everything in order.

Cirkus also got in touch with township officials. She, the township and PRC then worked to develop a farmers market that would be exactly that, as opposed to a weekly craft fair with the occasional produce stand. It was decided that the market’s main mission was the promotion of food and products made directly from New Jersey agriculture.

‘We want people to be able to shop at the market , then go home and cook.’

Another main goal, she said, was the promotion of healthy living and education for those who shop there. Like Summiel, a lot of residents of Ewing had never shopped at a farmers market until 31 & Main showed up.

What they were about to walk into was a market full of fresh, regional produce and products (like meats and cheeses) that carried noticeably higher price points than similar products in the supermarket.

Cirkus anticipated the question: Why spend more money on the same stuff? The answer is that the produce at 31 & Main is not the same as that sold in supermarkets.

Local growers means small growers—craftspeople who work on modest farms to make the food as good as they can love it into becoming.

Cirkus says that the taste, the care and the quality of fresh foods from places like Z Food Farm, Pineland Farms, Fulper Family Farms and Cherry Grove Farm are all far above the quality of mass-grown, bland, bulk produce that is shipped to supermarkets everywhere.

Plus, Cirkus said, these growers intimately know their foods. They know every ingredient, every nuance, and every type of food that goes perfectly with their produce.

And that level of dedication comes with a bit of a live show. Vendors talk to patrons; educate them about foods, recipes, nutrition, farming, and environment.

“We want people to be able to shop at the market , then go home and cook,” she said. And doing that demands a bit of education on the scene. Soft skills, in other words.

Apart from the vendors, of course, this is where Summiel Jr. comes in. Cirkus said she and Feehan met Summiel and immediately knew this gregarious, larger-than-life son of former Ewing councilman Les Summiel was the perfect face, voice, and spirit of 31 & Main.

Endlessly optimistic and effortlessly charming, Summiel is indeed the ideal guy to meander around the market and chat people up, direct them to vendors and help spread the word about 31 & Main.

A lifelong Ewing resident, Summiel only ventured away for a brief time to earn his bachelor’s in business administration from Towson State University in Baltimore in 2003.

From there he worked at a community organization in the Baltimore area before returning to Ewing and becoming the associate director of Young Scholars’ Institute in Trenton from 2007 to 2013.

In 2014 Summiel became a community liaison at Children’s Futures, a family health and human services organization in Trenton. So health and wellness, he said, were on his mind already when Cirkus and Feehan started talking with him about 31 & Main.

Cirkus said he understood the importance of health, had an eagerness to learn more, and that Summiel would be an ideal frontman.

What made this assessment so prescient is that the effect Cirkus hoped Summiel would have on the market’s patrons and on the community at large turned out to be the same effect the market has had on him. It’s changed his life and outlook on health in a nearly cosmic way.

“I’m deep in it,” he said. “I’ve started gardening; I’m looking into a possible career path in urban farming. I’m all in.”

Urban farming is exactly what it sounds like: using urban spaces and gardens to grow food. Summiel said he’s been inspired by Will Power, an urban gardening rock star based in Milwaukee.

He wants to advance the ideals Power espouses in bringing smaller, localized farming to city people who don’t have access to fresh foods nor access to the education about why nutrition is important—and why those higher price points are worth it, because you’re either going to pay for healthy foods or a doctor to fix what junky foods have done to you.

Summiel said he never thought much about nutrition while growing up in working-class Ewing. The rule of food around his house was, you ate what was there and what you could afford to buy. He’d developed a deep dislike for food like broccoli and mushrooms with no grounding for his hatred.

“I despised [mushrooms] for no reason,” he said. “If somebody put them on a pizza, I wouldn’t eat the pizza. And I’m eating mushrooms now.”

Junk, he said, like the cupcakes and chips he still loves, become a choice and a mindset. But, fortunately, so does real food grown in the ground and harvested by people who know that ripe, freshly harvested broccoli and tomatoes and peppers tower above canned vegetables in a soup from the store.

Moreover, what Summiel, Cirkus and Feehan want to do is make 31 & Main a great community event.

Not that he knocks supermarkets. He just knows now that real nutrition from fresh produce and meats is infinitely more delicious than he had always assumed.

This epiphany is exactly the kind of message Summiel is working so hard to get out. As the manager of 31 & Main, he makes sure to get the word out to the community about why they should come to the market and learn about healthy eating and good life habits.

Getting the word out, beyond schmoozing with patrons who come to the market means relying on social media and collaborations with PRC (which he said has been phenomenally supportive in helping make 31 & Main an early success), TCNJ (which sends volunteers to help small-staff vendors work their stands), and the township (which he said has embraced the market with open arms).

Summiel has been so inspired by working at the market that he’s even in the process of starting his own project management and marketing business. He said it will be general project management, but he imagines many of his projects will be focused on health.

What he ultimately wants from 31 & Main is to inspire, even if it’s only three or four people—because look what happened when just one guy minding his own business at a YMCA event got inspired just last year.

Moreover, what Summiel, Cirkus and Feehan want to do is make 31 & Main a great community event.

They’ve struck a delicate balance between marketplace and event, adding some live music and general hanging-out space for people to enjoy a Sunday afternoon.

They don’t want to expand too much further, at least not yet. Even if they do, Cirkus said, they don’t want to turn 31 & Main into a carnival fair. It’s about the food, the experience, and the community.

But it’s also about the business.

“We want the commerce of the market to be the priority,” Cirkus said. That means keeping a good mix of complementary vendors in the right balance with the vibe the market has already built. And so far, that vibe has held up.

The market gets “every kind of demographic,” she said. “It’s a really wide range of people; a rainbow of people, which is exactly what you want at a market.”

Ultimately, she said, patrons are driven to shop for whole meals at the market (when a year ago, they would not have thought in such an encompassing way) and by a basic humanistic impulse.

“People who want good food want good food,” she said.