This is the first in an ongoing series in which Jess will interview people who have interesting jobs and get them to tell her how they landed them. They will also reveal how they handled the transition to the real world after graduation —
I’m still figuring out what I want to do with my life (journalist? magazine editor? TV reporter? Stop asking me! It’s in the book! You can read about it in May!), but I’m pretty sure it would have gone in a very different direction if someone had told me that I could get paid to drive around the countryside to various locales and be fed. That I could eat cheese at organic dairy farms and visit artisanal bakeries and drink slushies and eat oysters and sample ice cream as my job. People pay other people to do these things. This is an actual job! I know, because my friend Elly has it.
I met Elly when we were both studying abroad in Melbourne, Australia (I think we were 20 at the time). She has the blondest, shiniest hair in the world and was, in fact, my first blond friend ever (I have two more now).
Anyway. How does one end up with her job? She didn’t find her way immediately after graduation (her previous stints included working as a server and eventually moving back home) before she landed her dream job as a “Northeast Regional Local Forager” for Whole Foods (meaning she gets to try all the food and decide whether it should be stocked in her branch’s store. People send her food hourly.)
She (a “cheerful, slender, blonde” — according to Bloomberg Businessweek, who shadowed her for a day) was kind enough to endure a Skype phone call – I was in London and she was driving from New York to her home in Connecticut. Throughout this post, I’m going to intermittently throw in photos that Elly took while “on the job.” No comment (on how ridiculous these photos from her job are).
Elly! You’re basically Woman Vs. Food. I mean, that’s what you are. You eat food. You walk around. You’re the slim, blond organic version of Man Vs. Food, except you also have power. How does a person even get a job like this? What did you study at college?
Elly: Haha! I went to University of Virginia. I was a Media Studies major – I feel like Communications was a laughable major, but it was a small program with 20 students per class. It was pretty across the board: we’d do critical analysis of media film studies or comics or graphic design and looked at advertising and marketing. I came out of school thinking I would never be involved in marketing because I had a negative opinion of it based on the liberal approach at UVA.
Elly: I had a very strong impression that I was going to work in the lifestyle realm and was really interested in publishing and travel and leisure. If you asked me in high school what my dream job was, it would be to work for Conde Nast Traveller as an editor. But in college, I got more interested in food — how it’s grown and made, and the social impact of that.
So what happened right after your college graduation? Did you get lost once you entered the real world?
Elly: I graduated from school and it seemed like everyone was expected to just go into a certain industry and start with a strong consulting job or finance or go back to school immediately, and I just wasn’t prepared for those things at all. What I did know was that I was interested in food and food politics.
So what was your first job out?
Elly: I worked at a small summer stand in Greenwich, Connecticut. I’m into food, not in the foodie sense but in the sense that I care about where it’s coming from, how it’s grown, how that affects the flavor. I had friends living there who had serious jobs Bain Capital and knew what they were doing and I was just working at this really small produce store. At times it felt like, “What am I doing? I graduated from UVA and I’m selling produce?” But I got to work with a lot of chefs there and farmers and got a lot of good experience that meant I was the right fit for my position now.
What did you do after that?
Elly: I made sure I became an expert at my job. I would know all the types of produce and the best ways to cook them, so I could answer the questions of anyone who came in through the door. I moved to Boston because two of my best friends from home were moving there. I felt like New York was going to be too big. I thought, “I’m coming with you guys and I’ll apply for jobs.”
Elly: I had a terrible interview in Boston. I applied for a job with Google and was so proud because they do an initial vetting with a test and your SAT scores. It was silly, but I was happy I made it to the next round and was convinced I was qualified.
But the interview itself was awful – I was so unprepared for such a serious interview. They asked questions like, “There are 300 domestic flights that fly out of Westchester airport everyday. Determine how much fuel they use.” They want you to talk through your answer. I didn’t know what I was doing and felt so uncomfortable. Normally I can work off of being people by talking to them, but there was no chance with this. I felt like such a fool.
I think I was overconfident and thought I should get any job and then I’d go to a PR job interview and have to give a writing sample and completely fail.
So what did you end up doing in Boston?
Elly: I started working at this tiny, but beautiful produce store in Boston called Plum Produce. I was there for five months and then I moved over to a restaurant group called #9, which has some of Boston’s nicest restaurants. I worked at place called Stir — it was a cookbook store and held cooking classes at night.
How was that?
Elly: Overall, it was a good experience. I was surrounded by people who were passionate about food. It was very much early on confirmed I don’t want to work in restaurants. I work well with chefs, but I didn’t feel like there was much of a mission or their work was connected to a greater good.
At Stir, I was doing marketing and admin during the day and also working at night – chefs are plating these beautiful dishes and I was serving them at night.
Elly: It was a humbling time. I had never really had a waiting job and it was tough to swallow when people who were my friends would come in and be served by me — people who were working at consulting firms. One night one of my friend’s friends had a private party and it was not ideal to have to serve them. But I learned a lot more about food and restaurant terminology that leant me a lot of credibility when it comes to my current job. But I was not feeling that fulfilled at the time.
What about other aspects of your life then?
Elly: I wasn’t loving Boston. I missed New York. Boston was a great city to visit but not for me to live in. It felt very one-note and I was only seeing the same people. I decided to leave and volunteer for two weeks at a farm. After that, I realized I would have to move back home to Connecticut and live with my parents to figure out what I really wanted to do.
Wait, you worked on a farm? What was that like?
Elly: A lot of pulling vegetables, harvesting pumpkins and squash, digging potatoes, cutting lettuce. There were 12 guys on the farm and I was the only girl. We were working long days. They were such a funny group of guys and most had grown up together in Siberia.
Elly: No, no Sudbury! Bad Skype connection.
This sounds like the reality TV show “Farmer Wants a Wife” except it’s “Farmer Wants a Husband.” Was it fun?
Elly: There was so much to learn. This is how you cut sunflowers, this is how you bunch them, this is how you plant this. It was back-breaking.
Did you have to shovel manure?
Elly: No, but I helped turn the compost – similar.
Why the decision to move home?
Elly: I felt very untethered and disappointed that I hadn’t found the right fit yet. I wanted to leave Boston but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I had worked at a farm stand, a produce stand, a cookbook store, even a farm and yet I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had not found something really worthwhile to me. I felt like I was drifting.
What did your parents say when you told them you were moving home? Or did you ask?
Elly: Being youngest of four sisters, I think that I have always had a level of independence different from my sisters. I always felt like they somewhat trusted my instincts, including my decision to come home – but I think my dad was like, “You just spent four years at this well-respected university – why aren’t you working with a good job where you don’t need to be borrowing money from us from a year?”
My parents and I don’t talk about this kind of stuff. I was a little nervous when it happened. I can’t remember if I asked them or if I was like “I’m not loving my job or Boston so I’m moving home.” It was probably more like, “I’m coming home.” I knew I had to make sure I was working hard at finding the next job and proactively looking for something. I would never sit on the couch all day.
What happened next?
Elly: I got an internship in New York. It was two days a week, and I’d commute in. It was for a food nonprofit. It was such a boring internship. It wasn’t social or connected, and I didn’t have a great experience there. I left within two months.
Elly: I applied for a position in marketing at the Chelsea Whole Foods. I felt like my background working at two produce stores and working with chefs and the farmers made me a good candidate. But I didn’t get the job. I felt like I’d done really well at the interview though and they said, “We’ll keep your name in mind” for future jobs. I thought they were just saying that, but three weeks later, they called me up. I landed the position as Marketing Team Leader at Westport Whole Foods.
Where were you living at this stage?
Elly: I was still living at home and commuting for this job. I spent eight months at home in total and then I moved over to the Whole Foods job at the Bowery store in the Lower East Side. And then I finally moved to New York! That was five years ago.
So what is your official title now?
Elly: My title is Northeast Regional Local Forager.
How many hours per day do you spend on your hands and knees foraging for mushrooms?
Elly: Hey! People assume forager means you are out foraging for wild produce or herbs that no one else ever find, or just eating food from farms. I’m seeking out new producers and suppliers for Whole Foods – so much of the position is to provide support to local suppliers and being a relationship builder – a lot of it is reviewing and vetting the products that get pitched to us and helping them logistically get the product into the store.
Are you happy now?
Elly: It’s the perfect job for me, I’m learning a ton and meeting with lots of producers who are passionate about what they do. I’m their helper and liaison to sell to Whole Foods, and get to be the initial director in terms of helping them grow their business. It’s busy all the time.
But it’s mostly just eating delicious food right? That has to be a big part of it.
Elly: We get sent a lot of samples every day. And if we’re doing a tasting, we might be sampling 40-50 samples of various Greek yoghurt, challah bread, jam – we have to be very strategic to not get too full.
What is your advice to recent grads or not-so-recent grads who are struggling to find what they want to do?
Elly: Even if you’re doing something that’s not your dream job, work hard at it, learn as much as you can from it. If you do it right, that job is going to get you your next job, which will be closer to what you want to be doing.
You post a lot of photos of farms. Have you ever milked a cow?
Elly: You know what? I haven’t!
I’m not impressed anymore. Oh and I just googled you again. You work with slushie vendors and poptart artisans?! And you judged a chili competition?!
Elly: Oh, that competition! Some of that chili was really good and some was really bad. Those judging events are so crazy.
J: Your life sounds really hard, Elly. Do you remember that roadtrip we took in Australia from Brisbane to Cairns? And we ate all the Australian gummy snacks in the world?
Elly: And we drank chocolate frappucinos on Airlie Beach!
J: What do you miss the most from Melbourne?
Elly: Vegi Bar!
The “Post Grad Dispatches” feature comes out every Wednesday. Stay posted.