Alex Terrell Russell grew up in Abilene, attending Wylie schools through middle school, until she moved to Nashville with her mom. She began college at the University of Tennessee but transferred to Texas Tech University and graduated in 2014. She had a political science internship lined up in Fort Worth when her grandmother, Abilene restaurant owner Sharon Riley, sat her down for a serious conversation about the family business.
“I thought I wanted to do that at some point, but I also thought I wanted do my own thing,” she said. “Granny helped me realize that’s not always how it works. If I was going to carry on the business, I still needed to be ingrained in management and the back of house. She never pressured me, but she wanted to know if I was really serious. It got me thinking, so I let go of the internship to join her.”
Her return to Abilene also introduced her to her husband, Justin, another Abilene native with a family history in the community. Falling in love also helped her let go of any lingering metro city dreams. Two weeks after graduation she started as general manager of Sharon Riley’s Lytle Land & Cattle, a place where she had waited tables since her teens.
“The same ladies were in the back making the bread and jalapeno poppers,” she said. “These women took care of me after school as a child. What a blessing to start your career with the people who raised you.”
Two years later, Alex began a new venture with Grant Vandever: Oddly Natural, a marketing company with a mission to help small, local businesses. Working in restaurants gave Alex a first-hand view of the need.
“As general manager, I was working floor hours,” she recalls. “There wasn’t a lot of time for taking photos, editing, writing captions, creating marketing messages. I thought about all the other small businesses who also probably couldn’t accomplish those goals.”
In November of 2016, then-councilman Anthony Williams asked her to head his mayoral campaign. With the successful conclusion of that campaign in June 2017, the political bug officially infected Alex, and she decided to run for city council herself the following November. Although she didn’t win the seat, Alex counts the experience as a meaningful one.
“I’m really proud of what came out of it,” she says. “It opened a lot of doors as far as people being willing to talk about entrepreneurship and young people.”
Alex’s involvement with Abilene Young Professionals began even before she officially moved back. She was nominated to the founding steering committee while a senior at Texas Tech, and in 2017 she became the organization’s second president. Other boards she serves on include the Texas Tech University Alumni Board, Center for Contemporary Art, Frontier Texas, the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force, the Planning and Zoning Commission, Working in West Texas, and the executive board of directors for the Chamber of Commerce.
Alex vividly recalls the day she broke the news to her grandmother that she planned to step away from the family restaurants to focus on her growing marketing business.
“I was terrified,” she said. “I brought her to my office downtown, and I was crying. By the time I got out what I wanted to say, she said ‘Honey, is that all?’ Her being so kind and supportive was crucial for me in my confidence going forward. It was no questions asked, just ‘Cool, we’ll figure it out.’ I’m really thankful.”
She also faced a challenging time period after losing the city council race. She had pulled back in her role at Oddly Natural, lost one of her best friends to suicide, and was unexpectedly pregnant.
But in the spring of 2018, life took another twist as Justin and Alex found out the Busch Jewelers building would be put up for sale.
“We knew we wanted that building,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be another vacant building. I’ve always thought it was so beautiful and really deserved to have life in it.”
Although she was initially resistant to opening a restaurant, Justin and many others she talked to convinced her it was the right fit.
“It’s in my blood,” she said. “I don’t know why it was so hard to acknowledge that!”
With the birth of son, Doss, in 2018 and the opening of their restaurant, The Local, in November of 2019, as well as continuing the success of Oddly Natural and JAR investments, Alex and Justin are tired, busy and thrilled with their full life.
“My office at The Local is full of baby stuff, and getting ready for the opening, we were putting him to bed upstairs in my office every night at 7, and then waking him up to take him home,” she said. “The journey to here has been more than I could have asked for in terms of support and encouragement from Abilene. I am so thankful. Every day I when I come downtown, go to the restaurant, go to Monks and see my friends, I see so much energy. I can’t believe it’s all coming together.”
Focus on the Future
“I’m always thinking about what do I want Abilene to look like, what do we deserve as a community,” Alex said. “I want to see progress in the workforce and better opportunities for students at universities and colleges. I hope the service industry will be elevated and treated with respect. I want progress in city government as far as more inclusion and a vision for a bolder, more diverse, more interesting Abilene.”
Although she doesn’t have specific plans, Alex said she hasn’t ruled out another run at public office. In the meantime, she continues her wide-ranging engagement in boards, committees and the business community.
By Wendy Kilmer
Photography by Beth Dukes