If you like cooking and have access to the internet, chances are you’ve heard of Food52, the brainchild of former New York Times dining writer, Amanda Hesser, and freelance editor/recipe tester, Merrill Stubbs. The two met when Amanda was charged with revising 1,400 recipes for The Essential New York Times Cookbook and over the course of many, many sessions in the kitchen, the pair discovered a mutual dissatisfaction with the state of online cooking resources—which, at that time, focused more on the quantity rather than the quality of recipes.
The founders had a vision for a website that would provide “everything for your cooking life,” from recipes, to kitchen tools, to servingware and more. Today, after launching with a focus on carefully curated recipes, that vision has been fulfilled, as the site has recently grown to include Provisions, an online lifestyle shop for food enthusiasts.
In the over-saturated world of food blogs and websites, the legions of followers and industry-wide respect that Food52 has garnered is an extraordinary success story. It was, therefore, no surprise that Amanda’s visit to the Institute of Culinary Education was a particular thrill for our students.
When asked to describe what she believes distinguishes Food52 from other sites, Amanda cited a few specific aspects of their team’s philosophy:
- A Unique Voice: Amanda believes that what prevents recipe-seekers from feeling loyal to recipe aggregators like Epicurious or All Recipes is the fact that these sites lack a unified perspective or tone. She explains, “[Voice] is what makes people feel they share your sensibility.”
- A Thoughtful Aesthetic: Just like a beautifully presented plate of food, the understated look of Food52 has far more depth than you could even imagine. Their logo color? Grabbed from a pixelated photo of kale. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t notice—the point is that they’ve thought about it. “When you set a strong voice and aesthetic,” Amanda explained, “it’s like a magnet.”
- Multiple Levels of Engagement: Only 2% of the Food52 community actually wants to add recipes, but there are many, many more users who want to comment, favorite and share the recipes with their own community. That said, of the 28,000 recipes currently on the site, 98% were provided by the community.
- Self-Selecting Content: Amanda and Merrill intentionally chose to make the process of adding recipes to the site a commitment, automatically weeding out less-committed cooks from their pool of ad-hoc contributors. To bolster that pool of content, they run specific recipe contests—for example, a contest for burger recipes during grilling season. They’ve also signed on a few of their staff members—including Executive Editor and ICE alum Kristen Miglore—to maintain ongoing columns, like the ever-popular “Genius Recipes” series.
Sticking to these principles, Amanda and Merrill have grown one of the most successful food start-ups in the industry. Over time, their staff has grown and business needs have changed, which sometimes means revising the game plan. For example, in the beginning, they never planned to have “featured contributors” from other successful food websites. Yet, over time, they have figured out how to seamlessly celebrate the cookbook launches or other milestones of their community’s favorite DIY celebrities.
In fact, one of Amanda’s most resonant points was that their staff is very keyed in to the voice of the community. From viewing analytics reports to maintaining an unusually high response rate to their audience’s questions and comments, their multi-faceted approach is akin to a master class in Community Engagement 101. The end result is impressive: one of the most civilized web communities on the internet. As Amanda put it, “People [only] misbehave when they feel like there’s no one there [listening].”
Advising those who want to launch their own food start-up, Amanda emphasized that it can be a long and bumpy road. “I have start-up baggage, but I think that baggage is actually good. [Before working at Food52], I made some mistakes without doing a lot of damage.” In short, working for a start-up on someone else’s dime to figure out how the financing and logistics come together might not be a bad idea. And don’t expect to get bought out for millions of dollars like some tech company: “Brands are not born overnight; we were not going for hyper-growth.”
Amanda also had salient advice for other aspiring food writers—namely, that the industry isn’t what it was when she first came onto the scene. “If you’re really interested in food, do something interesting in food,” Amanda says. You don’t need to be a full-time food writer—a role that rarely comes with a sense of financial stability—rather, you can work for a company that furthers your experience and knowledge, helping you to gain credibility.
Last but not least, Amanda shared a bit of insight that can apply to all ICE students, whether future entrepreneurs, bakers, recipe testers or food media personalities: “We’re not in a business of big wins—it’s about small adjustments. Always be ready to adapt.”
For more lectures and discussions with industry leaders at ICE, click here.