“I had a grandfather who loved seasonal food. When peaches were in season, he would eat peaches for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner. When the mackerel were runnin’, he would have fish and grits for breakfast, fish and salad for lunch, and fish and vegetables for dinner!” Lex paused, searching for the right word. “He was a gourmand. Someone who’s very picky and cares about what they eat.”
Popularly known as “The Food Guy,” Lex Alexander has devoted his life to the cultivation of high-quality, nutritious food. If you’ve ever shopped at the Whole Foods on Broad Street, you’ve tasted his legacy. With his wife Ann, Lex opened Wellspring Grocery in 1981, then merged with Whole Foods Market in 1991. In the nearly two decades he’s worked as a Product Developer for Whole Foods Market, Lex has shaped how consumers buy healthier food and connect to local producers.
“We demonstrated with local small farmers that, if they grew something better, we could sell it for a little more, and we could sell a whole lot of it,” Lex said. His strategy? Share the stories behind the food. Connect consumers to the real-life people and creative processes that make all their grocery options possible – and impossibly delicious.
“A European spinach grower came here in the 70’s, and a couple farmers here started using his method,” Lex recalled. “It had a crinkly leaf that was a little harder to wash, but it was way more delicious. Some Saturdays we could sell a hundred pounds of that spinach because I would tell people its story. They would go home with a big bag and come back for more.”Quantity is by no means his goal. It’s a natural outcome of quality. “The farmers saw that if you really pay attention, grow the right variety, pick it right, and take care of it, people will appreciate that difference in flavor and quality, and they’ll pay a little bit more.” Lex credits Europe for his orientation towards food, where seasonal and local practices are “all done in pursuit of flavor.” Now what’s so important about flavor?
“My basic belief is that there are two types of hunger. Physical hunger, like when you haven’t eaten all day, and sensorial hunger, like the eyes, the nose, how food tastes. I think that you have to satisfy sensorial hunger to stop physical eating,” Lex explained. “There’s no romance in getting something out of the freezer and putting it on a TV tray and eating it in front of a TV. You’re not being nourished in a sensorial way.” He added, “I think that’s why the portion size in America is so big.”
Lex is unapologetic in his critique of the American industrial food system, as well as the imprecise language often used to describe food. From gourmet to bistro, he has no patience for words that separate people by making certain foods seem exclusive. Whether it’s a product label or restaurant menu, he believes food sellers have a responsibility to communicate how they source ingredients and produce food to make their products healthier and tastier.
“There are a lot of people that are critical of people like me. They call us food nerds, or food snobs,” Lex said. “But what can be more interesting to know about and to learn about than something you’re gonna put inside of you?”
Spoken like a true foodie.
Swing by www.andabeautytoyou.com to follow Lex’s stories and food adventures! Big thanks to Annie Smith for introducing us. She regularly accompanies Lex to the Durham Farmers Market. Stop by on any given Saturday, and you may run into them!
Correction: We initially stated that Wellspring Grocery opened on Broad Street – which was actually the store’s third venue. Read more about the history of Wellspring’s location!
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