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Stylin’ Charlies: JT Mega Shops for Photo



Senior Designer Nancy Hope surveys the ingredients for her photo shoot for the Charlies’ signature design.

The key is to have more than one pomegranate or branch of longans at the ready. You never know when the “star” will start to wilt—or be rotten to the core—and you’ll need the understudy to quickly step in. 

While there were no hot studio lights involved in the making of this year’s Charlies collateral (it was natural light all the way), a couple of Boston mackerels were sacrificed and the “world’s most delicious shrimp” ended up in the trash after a long day of posing in a puddle of chili sauce.

In a world where it’s expedient to grab a stock image off the internet and be done, we were fascinated to watch the artists at JT Mega create a new signature image from scratch to represent the Charlie Awards' February 25 soirée. 

While 2016’s image was bright and cheerful—a sunny yellow palette of fresh produce and sparking wine to represent growers and farmers—this year’s diversity theme called for the dark brooding beauty of hand-harvested wild rice and black rice soba noodles, as well as the jewel palette of olives, saffron threads, Romanesco broccoli and papaya.

Deb Ellis checks out the images on her computer before lining up another shot. 

Senior Designer Nancy Hope and photographer Deb Ellis spent the day arranging and rearranging their finds into a flowing pathway of diverse ingredients that may or may not be regularly stocked in the pantries of Twin Cities chefs. Hope described them as the “raw ingredients that chefs work with and turn into art.” Hope and Ellis were taking it a step backwards, turning the raw ingredients into the art. 

But before they arranged, they researched. As a food-centric marketing agency, JT Mega knows the ingredients for a good photo shoot.

Once she heard that the 2018 theme was diversity—celebrating the differences that bring us together—Hope says she “wrote down a list of things I thought would be beautiful.” The two ad agency pros consulted the internet for inspiration, and then Ellis headed to Ha Tien, an Asian grocery store in St. Paul, where she found such treasures as sticky rice wrapped in a yellowed banana leaf (which looked like a little straw basket) and vibrant spices and peppers. At the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis, the pair unearthed heirloom beans, avocados, pepitas, lotus root and sambosas, as well as some unknown items.

 “We tried to get as many cultures as we could,” Hope explains. 

“But we didn’t need to know what it was for, it just needed to be pretty,” Ellis added.

The opened banana flower was deemed too much of a scene stealer for the final cut.

Ellis contributed a black ceramic bowl she had bought in Africa and Hope recycled the white birch bark she had peeled from a tree up north the previous weekend. And it never hurts if you have your own Meyers lemon tree in the back yard like Hope does, so you can be picky about picking ones with the perfect ratio of steam to leaf. 

When the original black table turned out to have too much texture, Hope found a discarded door in a dumpster and painted it matte black to use as the surface. They found matte black dishes from the Hearth & Hand with Magnolia collection at Target—a coup because shiny dishes don’t photograph well. “Originally, we were going to have empty plates” to emphasize a sharing theme,” Hope says, “but it got too busy.”

What was left out was as interesting as what made it into the final shot. 

Hope experimented with cooking some of the items, but found their color faded in the process and the raw version was substituted. Flour tortillas, even with their cool grill marks, didn’t make the cut, nor did a lobster—Ellis’s husband Doug Bigwood works at Almanac Fish—after Hope decided it would steal the show. Ellis went back to Almanac in St. Paul’s Market House Collaborative, where James Beard-award-winning chef Tim McKee personally chose the two prettiest Boston mackerels on ice and a Carabinero shrimp to donate to the effort. The fish, like unwanted guests at a photo shoot, started to stink after a few hours, but Ellis was still sad about having to discard the shrimp untasted. 

Another potential model was rejected when Hope cut into the dragon fruit to find it was a brilliant shade of fuchsia instead of the creamy white she was expecting. It would have fought with the deep orange of the papaya, she contends. A banana flower wasn’t opened to its full potential for much of the same reason the lobster and dragon fruit were rejected. There are no bit players here, but there also are no stars to detract from the harmony of ethnic ingredients flowing from one to another.

Who knew a dragon fruit could upstage a mango?

The photo shoot took most of the day, and by the time the light faded, so had most of the produce. But the best of the shots will be featured in ads, postcards, email blasts and in the numerous ways Foodservice News gets the word out on the Charlies. Like the photographs, the February 25 event celebrates the best in the foodservice community, with proceeds going to Open Arms, a nonprofit that delivers made-from-scratch, healthy meals to individuals fighting life-threatening diseases. 

Why would a busy food-advertising agency in St. Louis Park donate its time and talent to such a time-consuming project?

“It’s a treat to step away from the computer,” and do a “free-range project,” Hope says. “This was wide open.” 

Unlike paying clients who tend to give detailed instructions on what they want, Foodservice News gave the artists a wide berth. Normally, Hope would work with a prop stylist for a client, but with this assignment, she had a chance to channel her earlier life as a fine art student. She switched from fine art to illustration and design, “because I wanted to make a living.” 

Ellis’s business card says she’s JT Mega’s director of administration, but she subs as a photographer when needed. Since she’s tied to the office with her administrative HR duties, she laughingly says, she’s there when they need a good photographer.

She’s a good copywriter, too, Hope adds.

We even had account executives for the project: Kelsey Stanczyk and Erin Denham. While the participants said the pro bono project was a fun challenge to tackle, it’s also their gift to the foodservice community, many of whom are their clients. Just say it’s their Valentine to the industry, 11 days after the holiday. 


Ingredients line up for their audition.

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