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Trenton Farmers Market Enters a New Chapter

A new manager carefully balances what made the market a draw for 71 years with new reasons to shop under the iconic sign

By Ilene Dube | Photos by Charles R. Plohn

Cantaloupes the size of basketballs; sweet red peppers the size of, well, what I previously thought cantaloupes to be. Peaches with a blush of fuzz and tomatoes with names like Oxheart Riviera among the usual Brandywines and Sun Golds. These are among the recent finds at the Trenton Farmers Market, where the air is scented with basil, smoked sausage, and barbecue.

The 71-year-old institution has been infused with new energy since Chris Cirkus, longtime manager of the West Windsor Farmers Market, took the helm in January. She is the fifth manager in the market’s history.

Cirkus wants people to know that she’s still managing, and committed to, the West Windsor market. On a recent Saturday, after breaking down in West Windsor where she’d stood in the hot sun since 7 a.m. greeting customers, making sure everything went smoothly, and playfully interacting with the children accompanying their parents, Cirkus zipped over to Spruce Street in Lawrence Township (technically it’s located in Lawrence Township, even though it’s named the Trenton Farmers Market) and continued her duties.

She had spent the previous evening hand-lettering, in colored chalk, the sandwich board’s announcements of what’s seasonal and fresh, as well as special events (shoppers at the West Windsor market will recognize the homey touch).

Cirkus’s octogenarian mother often accompanies her to the market, shopping for tomatoes or nectarines, then gets a lift home and dries her haul in an Excalibur dehydrator – one of the few belongings she brought when she moved in with Cirkus a year ago. “She likes to use recipes, she’s more methodical than I am,” Cirkus says of her French-born mother. Cirkus self-identifies as an inspirational cook, finding what’s in season and simply sautéing or roasting (see recipes).

An earth mother of sorts, Cirkus has a history of getting people to eat their fruits and vegetables. Before she began managing farmers’ markets, she created a cooking program for kids at Beth Chaim Synagogue in West Windsor, and later taught kindergarteners how to make fresh pasta with herbs they picked from the garden. They learned to make pesto using a mezzaluna, a half-moon shaped tool for cutting veggies and herbs, instead of a food processor. Her own daughters – Samantha, 23, and Rebeka, 26 – enjoy cooking with fresh ingredients and are regulars at all the farmers’ markets they happen upon.

In more recent years, Cirkus has worked as assistant coordinator with the New Jersey State Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program, connecting area farmers and the school lunch program.

Farmers’ markets underwent a resurgence in popularity beginning 15 years ago, with markets opening in Princeton, West Windsor, Montgomery, Hopewell, and in Trenton neighborhoods, but the Trenton Farmers Market’s roots go back to the early 1900s, when farmers came by horse and wagon to sell their produce near the Trenton Makes bridge.

In 1939, in anticipation of the building of Route 29, the Trenton Market Growers Cooperative Association formed and purchased the property on Spruce Street. The original market buildings were moved and the Trenton Farmers Market opened in 1948. What began with three parallel buildings became the current cross shape by cutting the center building in half and affixing it to the eastern building in 1968. Outdoor stalls gave way to an indoor facility with overhead doors to give the market its open, outdoor look.

The classic market structure is cooled by overhead fans, and on a muggy day in late summer the air was comfortable.

In its heyday, the cooperative had 100 farmers. Over the years, the market branched into the sale of fresh meats, baked goods, poultry, plants, flowers, jewelry, apparel, and flea market items. Catering to the surrounding Polish American community, stalls selling pierogis and kielbasa proliferated. Some vendors rent stalls on a weekly basis, so the offerings are constantly changing, from handbags and shea butter to patchouli oil and gift baskets.

As supermarket superstores proliferated, the Trenton Farmers Market faced stiff competition. When Cirkus took the helm, she set about performing a deep clean – painting, power washing and restriping the floors, adding an ATM, updating the restrooms, and taking out ads in local newspapers (Cirkus is hands-on – the market also has a secretary, who has been in the job for 24 years and is a great source of institutional knowledge, a custodian, and an 88-year-old volunteer). It goes without saying that she very likely employed the assistance of other cleaning personnel (or just the staff) and used top-class cleaning equipment from the likes of Intelligent Design Manufacturing to ensure a deep and thorough clean. After all, the hygiene of a retail store can make or break the place. During the cleaning, she unearthed historic photos that she has framed and incorporated into a slideshow on the TV monitors at both ends of the market. “People love the nostalgia, they are reliving what was here,” she says.

Cirkus’s husband, Mikel, an artist and graphic designer with Firmenich, was recruited to redo the logo (as a volunteer), which he based on the iconic metal sign over the building.

The market’s Facebook page has 6,000 “very vocal” followers, says Cirkus, who share her posts across the country. “People love this market.”

Although Cirkus hasn’t yet figured out how to count customers, as she does by employing a person who sits at the entrance to the West Windsor market, she has heard that people are once again vying for parking spaces, as they did in days of yore. “The history of this market is what sets it apart,” she says.

As we are talking, Cirkus stoops to pick up trash from the floor, as she does throughout the day at both jobs. She is standing with a cane – she had foot surgery a few years ago, she tells a concerned customer who inquires about the cane, but the reason she is carrying it is because she has rescued it for a customer who left it behind.

Conversations with Cirkus are frequently interrupted by the many customers who have come to know her by name, and she is deft at speaking to several people at once, making each feel listened to. They have questions about items they are searching for, vendors they no longer see, or may inquire about the price to rent a stall.

One customer stops to chat, and then mentions that she suffered a recent head injury and is feeling confused. “Are you OK to drive home?” Cirkus asks. “Can I get you a cider?” One gets the feeling that Cirkus will take care of the world.

The two markets she runs are quite different – the West Windsor market is a nonprofit, and the Trenton market is run by a farmers’ cooperative. She reports to a board of six farmers.

Cirkus describes herself as a people person who is “good at community, logistics, events, rules, and organization. Now I’m dealing with a building, as well.”

When she first came on board, a few of the farmers and vendors closed shop – not because of the new management, but because they had been in business a long time and were ready to move on. Cirkus has had to fend off accusations that she “fired” the vendors or that she’s raised the rent (she has not). It is a careful balance to keep the loyal customers happy and bring in new faces. She is presently negotiating with a few new farmers (Abe’s Acres of Hightstown will start in the new year, as will Zell’s of Hillsborough), and has brought in several new businesses, such as Terra Momo Bread Company, Trenton-based Tea for All (Cirkus’ mother loves the “Buddha’s Meditation” blend), Kafe Ojala, and Lady and the Shallot.

Raoul Momo, who has known Cirkus through the food world for years, saw her Facebook post about another baker who was retiring from the market and phoned her immediately. The bread Terra Momo sells at the market is baked at its Princeton store, but the pizza and focaccia is baked on site.

Cirkus found Tea for All at an event at Artworks – they will be opening a shop in the market with tastings and classes in how tea is grown, processed, and blended – and Kafe Ojala will be selling beans and brewed coffee from the former Trenton Coffee Roaster equipment. Lady and the Shallot is a vegan eatery that was started by a hairdresser and a teacher who turned to catering; they offer gluten-free, nut-free, and low sodium products. And it’s not the only vegan eatery in the market. Savory Leaf offers vegan fare made from jackfruit, a chick-pea tuna salad, and the Impossible Burger.

Meat eaters, don’t despair – there are kielbasa vendors and butchers, and Crab Shack sells fresh seafood (the “Shack in the Back,” with live crabs, whole fish cleaned to order, and “blow-out sales” on Sundays). King Foods and Grill sells chicken salads and sandwiches. Hambone Opera has been cited as best barbecue in Trenton and offers live music Fridays from noon to 1 p.m. Pie’d Piper went into business selling pies but now offers kielbasa, pierogis, and donuts.

“People come from far and wide for Polish delicacies, including stuffed cabbage,” says Cirkus. Amish meats and poultry, baked goods, rotisserie chicken, an Amish grocery store, even essential oils and CBD – it’s all here.

Cedarville Farms is one of the founding farmers, and Terhune Orchards has had a stand at the market for more than 20 years. In fact, Terhune is one of two farms to have a year-round presence at the market.

Among the things the Trenton Farmers Market offers in abundance is diversity, representing the many cultures of the surrounding community. La Trucha Catracha, a Spanish grocer offering tropical fruits and vegetables, is set to open as of this writing. Under Honduran ownership, it will offer prepared foods for eat in and takeout, tapping into the Latin community, says Cirkus.

“There’s a price point for everyone at the market,” she adds; the market accepts WIC and EBT. “We attract people from every walk of life.”

Surveys conducted over the years have shown the average customer to be between 51 and 70 years of age, live within a 10-minute drive of the market, and has been coming “forever.” A 75-year-old man, a customer since childhood, stopped to ask Cirkus where he might find turnips. “I read in Reader’s Digest that the greens are healthy and good for arthritis,” he said. He and Cirkus engage in a conversation about how the reports on what is good for you change from week to week: coffee and eggs, for example, are now good for you. Cirkus quotes food writer Michael Pollan: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Cirkus has covered the tables filling the center hall with cheerful green-and-white gingham oil cloths. “Some may come for kielbasa and two apples, or to socialize. People are looking for a sense of place. Now they can enjoy coffee and tea, and meet with neighbors and friends.”

The Trenton Farmers Market, 960 Spruce Street, Lawrence, is open Thursday through Saturday, 9am to 6pm and Sunday, 10am to 4pm in November and December. Additional holiday hours are posted at January through April hours are Thursday through Saturday, 9am to 6pm; May through October hours are Wednesday through Saturday 9am to 6pm and Sunday 10am to 4pm.