June 17, 2021

Alexandra Beer House

The Real Estate Experts

How Food52 created a $100 million media empire

There are no shortage of recipe sites on the internet—from Martha Stewart’s pastel-hued empire to curated recipes on Bon Appétit to home-grown blogs. But no food site has managed to blend e-commerce with content as successfully as Food52.

New York Times food editors Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs founded Food52 in 2009 as a website that bridged the gap between gourmet cooking and crowdsourced recipes. Over the past 12 years, it has evolved to include an online marketplace of home goods and a line of kitchen products. This week, it announced that it had acquired Dansk, a 67-year-old Scandinavian-inspired home brand with a cult following.

Founders Merrill Stubbs and Amanda Hesser in the test kitchen. [Photo: Courtesy Food52]

At a time when many media outlets are flailing, Food52 is a rare success story. Right before the pandemic, VC firm The Chernin Group (TCG) bought a majority stake in the company for $83 million, bringing Food52’s total funding to $96.6 million and valuing it at $100 million. COVID-19 only fueled the platform’s growth. In 2020, Food52 doubled its revenue from the year before, achieving profitability for the first time. It’s recipe traffic went up by 34%, and its YouTube subscribers nearly quadrupled to 400,000. But now the question is whether the site can maintain its inclusive, intimate relationship with its audience as it scales.

A new kind of food media

It has never been hard to find a good recipe. As veteran New York Times food journalists, Hesser and Stubbs were immersed in the world of highbrow cookbooks and complex recipes forged in test kitchens. But in the mid-2000s, home cooks began sharing family recipes and food stories on blogs that were an alternative to the professional, chef-driven media of the previous 50 years.

Hesser and Stubbs were intrigued by this more democratic approach to food, but felt it could be hard to navigate the chaotic blogosphere. They wanted to create a more curated way for people to share recipes. And importantly, they wanted their content to reflect the reality that food was no longer a niche topic but was woven into people’s identities and lifestyles. “For the longest time, food was an afterthought to Americans,” says Hesser, who serves as Food52’s CEO. “Suddenly, people realized that food was a central part of who they were, from their family’s history to how they choose to live their lives.”

The Food52 test kitchen. [Photo: Courtesy Food52]

When they launched Food52, they hoped it would be a new kind of community centered on food. To fund their nascent company, Hesser and Stubbs sold two cookbooks to HarperCollins, using their advance as seed funding. (Hesser remains intimately involved with every aspect of Food52, but Stubbs stepped away from her day-to-day responsibilities as president this past November, although she remains on the board of directors.)

Even though the two women were professional recipe creators, they chose not to write recipes for the site themselves, but to crowdsource from their audience. Every week, they launched a contest, inviting readers to submit recipes for a specific dish like layer cakes or kale salads. They would cull through the entries and ask readers to test the top recipes and vote on them. Then Hesser and Stubbs would post videos of themselves cooking the winning dish in Hesser’s kitchen and photograph it beautifully, creating high-quality imagery. In short, they were blending the interactivity of a blog with the high production values of a glossy magazine. This approach allowed them to build a database of recipes, and just as importantly, a loyal community. These days, there is still a portal for readers to submit recipes alongside those that staffers create. “Our readers had a sense of ownership over how the content was created,” says Hesser. “It also helped us to scale quickly because people were submitting recipes and our job was figuring out how to best curate it.”

[Photo: Courtesy Food52]

Food historian KC Hysmith says the site offered an alternative to the chef-driven food media that had dominated the landscape since the 1950s, with magazines like Saveur, Bon Appétit, and Gourmet. “The media we had been consuming for a generation was focused on the mastery of food and the perfection of the craft,” she says. But Food52 tapped into a different legacy of food media, one that had more to do with home cooking and family meals showcased in women’s magazines and community recipe books. In the past, this tended to be a female-oriented space, since women were responsible for cooking for their families. “Food52 is founded by two women who left the old-school culinary institutions and traditional food media to start their own thing,” says Hysmith. “It builds on a history of home cooking, which tended to be looked down upon by professional chefs.”

This democratic approach hit the mark with many readers, who developed a loyalty to the brand. Soon, readers flocked to the website and the platform began generating ad revenue, which allowed the founders to hire professional photographers, recipe testers and food stylists, who could in turn create more content.

While Food52 doesn’t disclose monthly traffic or revenue figures, it says its readership has continued to grow and its staff now numbers 134 people. This has led to new opportunities to create revenue streams. “Once you build trust, you can do lots of things,” Hesser says. “You can cover a wider range of topics, create events for your audience, sell them things.”

From recipes to marketplace

When it came to selling products to readers, Hesser wanted to tread very lightly. She worried that if the site came across as just an excuse to sell stuff, it would cheapen the content and dilute the brand. So, for the first four years of Food52’s existence, the site only recommended products, which were tested by writers, but it didn’t make money from the sales of these items.

By 2013, Hesser felt readers trusted the site to pick only the best products, so the company launched the Food52 Shop, which sold a small selection of kitchen tools. Since then, it’s become a large marketplace with a wide range of home products. During the pandemic, it sold masks, hand sanitizer, garden and home improvement equipment, and even exercise gear, in response to consumers’ interests. With its recent infusion of VC funding, the company is now planning to open pop-up shops and brick-and-mortar stores.

Hysmith says that product recommendations have always been a natural part of food media, because readers want to know what kitchen tools or ingredients to buy. In women’s magazines in the 1800s and early 1900s, food writers often endorsed a particular brand of flour or butter. But in order for the recipes and recommendations to be compelling, writers had to develop a relationship with their readers. “Readers who trusted these women would trust their advice about what to buy,” she says. “Food52 capitalized on the understanding that if you create a body of communal knowledge that you share, readers are more likely to buy other products from you.”

Five Two is Food52’s own line of products. [Photo: Courtesy Food52]

Mike Kerns, co-founder of TCG, says he was impressed by how the brand was able to convert its devoted readership into shoppers. And since customers were already coming to the site and its social media accounts for content, the brand didn’t need to spend money on Facebook or Instagram. Together, he argues, these things laid the foundation for a much stronger business model. “Food52’s food media competitors all monetize primarily with advertisements,” he says. “But by the time we invested in it, Food52 was generating 85% to 90% of its revenue from commerce. And they spent less than 4% of their revenue on to customer acquisition.”

In 2018, to capitalize on the success of the marketplace, Food52 launched its own line of products, Five Two, which are designed in-house. The market for kitchen tools is crowded, but over the years, Hesser says readers commented about how hard it was to find products that truly hit the mark. “Kitchen product companies have great industrial designers and partner with chefs, but few of them actually collaborate with the end user, who will be using these products in their home kitchens,” Hesser says.

Food52 has taken a different approach: It asks readers to be part of a “design team,” where they take part in detailed surveys and test prototypes. So far, more than 25,000 have signed up. This has resulted in a stream of clever, problem-solving products. For instance, there’s a $59 cutting board with a nifty phone slot so you can keep your recipe handy while you’re cooking; it also flips over to become a carving board with an extra deep juice groove. The $45 apron comes with a conversion chart in a pocket and built-in pot holders at the bottom corners. The $39 rolling pin comes with silicone rings that allow you to create dough at a precise thickness.

Dansk was acquired this week by Food52. [Photo: Courtesy Food52]

And in its latest move, Food52 is now acquiring other cookware brands. This week, it bought Dansk, a company that creates tableware and kitchenware with a distinct mid-century modern aesthetic, for an undisclosed amount. The brand was founded in 1954 by Americans who were captivated by Scandinavian design. They brought on the Danish designer Jens Quistgaard to develop products, including an iconic enamel saucepan whose lid doubles as a trivet. Products are affordable: A mug costs $12 while a set of flatware costs $43.

The brand has remained popular among design-oriented foodies. Hysmith, for instance, saved up to buy Dansk products for her first kitchen after college. But it has never had the wide appeal of brands like Le Creuset and Staub. Hesser’s goal is to help bring it to a new generation—with a crowdsourced approach, of course. “Dansk has an incredible archive and there are lots of great designs we would like to revive,” she says. “In our social posts, we’ve been asking our community to take pictures of the favorite Danks products they own and tag us, so we can use it as inspiration for the pieces we relaunch.”

Food52’s future

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, many people called out magazines for their lack of diversity. Bon Appétit came under a particularly blistering attack as photos surfaced of editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport wearing a racist Halloween costume, and staffers said people of color were paid less than their white counterparts. Food52 came under scrutiny as well, for failing to hire a diverse enough team and not adequately amplifying the voices of Black people and people of color within its community. “The critique was that there were two white women in charge and it might be time to shake things up,” says Hysmith. “But the company is used to responding to readers’ comments and feedback, so they were quick to spring into action.”

Food52’s editors had begun addressing the company’s lack of diversity back in 2017, but last June, they laid out more plans to do better, which included actively seeking out more diverse candidates for positions and partnering with more brands owned by people of color. Some of these changes are already in effect. For instance, it launched a new video series featuring Sohla El-Waylly, who vocally left Bon Appetit because she felt the magazine discriminated against people of color, as well as Rick Martinez, a veteran food editor who specializes in Mexican cuisine, who had also worked at Bon Appétit. In March, the company hired its first-ever head of people and culture, Katasha Harley, who comes from the New York Times. Still, if Food52 is to retain its reputation for being an inclusive space in the food world, it will need to continue bringing in diverse voices and points of views.

[Photo: Courtesy Food52]

Over the last 12 years, Food52 has thrived thanks to its skill for creating a community and listening to it. But as it continues scaling, it may get harder to stay as intimately connected to its audience. Kerns believes that the laborious process of building an audience has given the company the foundation it needs to scale now. “You can’t fake that connection with your audience,” he says. “It takes time to build it, blog by blog, visitor by visitor. Ultimately, the community believes that if something is going to be on the Food52 shop, it’s curated by the same people who are curating the content.”

From Hesser’s perspective, the past decade of slowly, carefully establishing intimacy with readers was building to this moment, when Food52 can expand beyond recipes and stories to become a full-fledged lifestyle brand devoted to food-lovers.”From the start, we’ve been exploring what it takes to build trust with an audience,” she says. “We always believed that if you build and maintain that trust, people will follow along with you. We’re just at the next point in that journey.”