Content, commerce, and cooking: How Food52 is making small community into a big business

August 7, 2014, 6:08 PM UTC
Food52's homepage.
Food52's homepage.
Courtesy: Food52

In 2009, Food52 had a level of sweet, indie appeal. The cooking site, which was founded by former New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, featured well-shot food photos, friendly how-to videos, and fervent community debates on which fat to use in a pie crust or the best way to melt caramel. The recipes were curated and vetted. The members were more sophisticated than your average Rachael Ray fan.

For all of this, the site was soon rewarded with a monthly audience of more than a million people, as measured by unique users. Yet compared to a site like—monthly audience: 30 million—Food52 was small potatoes. (Heirloom fingerling potatoes, no doubt, but small all the same.)

In 2013, Hesser and Stubbs decided to change that. The pair raised $2 million in a Series A funding round from Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments and others to become a digital foodie force. Content plus commerce plus community was the business model du jour, and Hesser and Stubbs saw an opportunity to go deeper with their small but engaged community.

The company grew to 28 employees and moved into a new kitchen-office hybrid space, laden with plated dishes from test recipes and shoots. (On a recent visit, its staff snacked on a whole roasted fish and fizzy cocktails, while I coughed on the fumes from some pungent roasted chili peppers.)

Food52 also used the additional capital to expand into commerce. A year ago the company launched Provisions, a website that sells the accessories and lifestyle products that accompany its recipes, such as the cookware in which Food52 has used to display its recipes and pantry items like sauces, oils, and salts. There are plenty of esoteric accessories, too, like a very necessary $585 champagne saber and tiny knit hats for eggs.

With Provisions, Food52 goes full circle. The content integrates the recipes, the recipes integrate the store, and the store’s inventory is integrated into Collections, a Pinterest-like part of the site that lets users save recipes, articles, and items for purchase in one place.

The move appears to be working. Food52 now has 3.6 million monthly unique visitors, up from 1.7 million a year ago. Email subscriptions have doubled from 650,000 to 1.5 million. The number of recipes has increased threefold since April of last year to 27,000.

Better still: One year in, Provisions has grown to make-up two thirds of Food52’s gross revenue. (The rest comes from advertisements.) With 30,000 shoppers, half of which have become return customers, the company hit its second and third-highest revenue weeks this summer, a rare feat for a seasonal commerce business. Its customers are also younger—more than half are under the age of 34, Hesser says—despite the “disposable income” nature of the site’s products.

The biggest surprise? Provisions’ top-selling category isn’t even cooking-related. Storage and organization items, such as laundry baskets and dryer balls, lead the way. Many top-performing items are sold exclusively by Food52, affirming the lesson every young e-commerce company learns: If it’s sold on Amazon (AMZN), you’re going to get beat. Which is why Food52 sells custom hand-blown ice buckets, an exclusive spice blend of black sesame, ocean salt and seaweed, and Stumptown coffee travel kits. Oh, and wreaths. “People go nuts for wreaths,” Hesser says.

The next opportunity for Food52 is to design its own products, which the company has already explored in partnership with its vendors. Food52 has created a custom farmer’s market tote bag with MZ Wallace, the New York handbag company, and a set of tea towels with 52 stripes with designer Christina Weber. The company is also returning to Hesser’s publishing roots in a deal with Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House subsidiary Crown Publishing, to create four to five cooking-related books each year.

In the world of food-related online communities, Food52 is still tiny. But its boutique appeal, bolstered by unusual content and a genuinely engaged audience, seems to be valuable as the digital media landscape becomes increasingly fragmented. The company has invested very little in marketing thus far, but its audience is growing and staying highly engaged. “Its not that we are like, ‘Oh slow growth,’” Hesser says. “But we feel like the way we maintain our brand is by being thoughtful and careful about how we grow.” For niche websites, it’s better to go deep than wide. Or to use another popular startup maxim: It’s better to build something that 100 people love than something that 1 million people only kind of like.