Ask a child what she wants to be when she grows up and the answer often seems unrealistic and far-fetched to the inquiring adult; I want to be a singer astronaut, a veterinarian fire fighter, a dancer scientist; fantastical combinations often considered too delicious to come to fruition in ‘real’ life. As an art director and food trend forecaster at Whole Foods, as well as, an in-demand illustrator, Avalon Mckenzie has manifested a professional life that perfectly reflects her plurality of skills and interests, including personal values rooted in sustainability and vegetarianism.
Like many young creatives, Avalon Mckenzie made a beeline to New York City when she graduated from high school. She attended Parsons in Greenwich Village and earned a degree in communications design. Her post-collegiate path included a transient stop in Austin where she met her husband Cody, followed by a stint back on the east coast working at Free People in Philadelphia before ultimately returning home to work at Whole Foods.
The engines of ambition and talent have clearly earned Mckenzie a spot as a powerful creative at America’s omnipresent high-end grocery store chain, but when we interviewed her at her house, we realized her recipe for success has one more elemental piece: brazen optimism. A magnet on her refrigerator broadcasts the slogan, PROCEED AS IF SUCCESS IS INEVITABLE and when asked about it, Mckenzie admits that those words are indeed her motto.
As nerdy as it probably is, ‘proceed as if success is inevitable’ is something I live by. I think setting goals is really important. I set a couple 30-year goals that I ended up reaching, and if I hadn’t put it out there in my mid-20s, I don’t think I would have achieved them. I think there’s something to putting it out there.
Q — You fill a couple roles at Whole Foods what does the art director position look like and how do you handle being a lead creator and people manager?
I work on conceptualizing photography direction and design for a range of seasonal and department-specific campaigns, as well as projects for the Whole Foods website and social channels. Our work is really collaborative and we work with many folks from non-creative facets of the business. I’m new at being a boss, but it’s been one of the most valuable challenges of my career so far. I’m constantly learning.
Q — In addition to your work at Whole Foods, you are a busy free-lance illustrator. Tell us more about your interest in drawing by hand? How do you fit it all in?
I don’t sleep! 2018 was a year of work, but it’s been really gratifying and I feel fortunate to have a job I’m passionate about and to have fun freelance projects from clients, like By George. Drawing is such a crucial skill in being a graphic designer. I became interested in calligraphy in school, and it ended up becoming a big part of my job when I worked at Free People, where we combined classic design with hand-lettering and artwork. I loved that job! Since then, I’ve worked with Victoria’s Secret and some other fun clients doing illustration and lettering. I really love watercolor, and hope to have more time to devote to it this year.
Q — What inspired you to become a vegetarian?
Well, I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 13, based on a middle school dare to go vegetarian for a week. I never looked back. It’s been so long, but I think my mom was my biggest influence. She was really accepting of my decision and always let me buy my own items at the grocery store. She grew up in LA, always cooked really healthfully and mostly vegetarian. My most nostalgic food is homemade Greek salad with good sourdough bread.
Q — What are your favorite cookbooks?
There are so many cookbooks I love now—anything from Alice Waters—they’re not all vegetarian or vegan, but all about simple, seasonal ingredients. In college, when I didn’t have much money, going to Angelica Kitchen was such a treat. I treasure their cookbook since they have since closed. I also use The Kitchn a lot for basic cooking methods.
Q — What is your approach to grocery shopping for the week ahead?
I usually focus on what looks most fresh. I do enjoy sitting down with cookbooks or Pinterest to do proper meal planning with recipes, but I don’t always have time, so often I rely on having a well-stocked pantry, and just buying a few pieces of produce.
Q — Can you give us a list of the staples you keep in your pantry, maybe even brands too, to inspire us?
I really like Frontier spices, and shop the bulk spice section at Whole Foods, using reusable jars. Braggs Organic Olive Oil. Amy’s Refried Black Beans. Pasta (normal white pasta—I don’t think I’ll ever adopt healthier versions). Dried beans from Rancho Gordo. Coconut oil. I also love finding pantry ingredients when I travel, like chili powder from Santa Fe. Then basically every kind of rice, lentil, nut, seed and superfood. I have the pantry of a soccer mom.
Words by Elizabeth Aubrey
Elizabeth is a Writer and Operations Manager at Kinn. She gets excited about a well-crafted sentence, a dry martini and dogs, any dog.
Photos by Carli Rene
Carli Rene is a free-lance photographer and editor of InkedFingers magazine. She’s traveled around the world to document stories, from Tokyo to Jerusalem, and is so grateful she gets to do the two things she loves most in this lifetime: raise a daughter and get paid to create.