Before launching Food52, Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs spent their nights and weekends testing over 1,400 recipes for The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century. The experience laid the foundation for their co-founder relationship which is as fluid as the ebbs and flows of two chefs collaborating in the kitchen.
“One of us would start a recipe, and the other would finish,” Amanda reflects. “The time we spent cooking was training for running a business together. We developed our personal and professional relationship and tested each other out, whether or not we knew it,” Merrill continues. “It’s a rare luxury to work so easily with someone and to become friends.”
The duo tested up to seven recipes on ambitious days, alternating bouncing Amanda’s newborn twins as they sat and watched in the kitchen. “There’s been a lot,” she says. “We’ve grown a lot together.”
Today, nearly seven years into Food52, the most robust content and commerce online community for home cooks, the two possess a co-founder relationship that glistens. As they communicate with few words – It’s almost as if others aren’t there – their chemistry is palpable and refreshing.
The authenticity transcends into everything their team creates at Food52, including their new app (Not) Recipes that encourages home cooks to post and share their meals. The app looks and feels like Instagram with photos of home-cooked meals – Some plated and others sizzling in the pot – added by users. The team’s chief goal is to reinforce that you don’t need to be a trained chef to share photos, recipes, and tips. Less than two weeks in, the community is thriving and gives you a glimpse into individuals lives, culture, and traditions. If you enjoy cooking and eating and haven’t downloaded the app, I highly recommend you do.
For today’s featured interview, Amanda and Merrill join us to discuss why inclusion is a foundational value at Food52 and how it informs the team’s deliberate approach to scaling.
When Food52 launched in 2009 the founders’ mission was to create “a cooking site where the users feel like they have a voice.”
“Before we launched, it was a top-down mentality with recipes broadcast at you. ‘This is what you should be making and this is how,’” Merrill says. The rise of food blogging was an enormous indication that non-professionals (i.e. you and me) have important stories to share.
It was the world of home cooks not professionals, restaurant chefs, or magazine editors.
“We felt confident that if that many people were creating food blogs, which are a huge labor of love, commitment, and expense, that there had to be rippling circles of people who cook every day and have great insights but no platform. We want to be the platform for those people,” she continues.
While Food52 has evolved to host events and sell products, the core of the platform lives on. Community members post, save, and vote on their favorite recipes like Popo’s Pot Stickers and Spicy Shrimp. Community members can also participate in contests like The Recipe You’re Most Proud Of (Winner: Pomegranate Braised Lamb Shanks) and The Best Thing You Ate This Year (Winner: Bucatini Pasta with Pork Ragu).
The community aspect similarly pulsates with each heart that’s tapped on the (Not) Recipes app as users save their favorites. These are some of mine.
“We want to capture the casual cooking that happens every day,” Merrill says. “Most of that doesn’t involve recipes. (Not) Recipes is a place where you can share your work, ideas, and tips for a recipe you’ve been tweaking. It’s easy to participate. You don’t need to add a full recipe.”
The team attributes the genesis of the app to an ongoing shift we’re observing in food culture. Growing up with food television and reading blogs, has inspired a surge of confident home cooks. “This generation’s food knowledge is so much deeper than ours was,” Amanda says. “People aren’t operating from zero anymore. They’re more comfortable to experiment. We continue to evolve our thinking to capture that energy.”
Surprisingly, the nuanced mentality spans back to the 1800s when most newspaper food columns included cooking and household tips shared by homemakers. “The recipes were incredibly loose,” Merrill recounts on her research. A common bread recipe sounded like: “Mix together one cup of flour, a walnut-sized piece of butter, and cook until it is done.”
In addition to the 47,000 recipes that have been added to Food52 the last seven years, they’ve achieved that in the five cookbooks they’ve published showcasing a compilation of community members best recipes.
Their latest A New Way to Dinner: A Playbook of Recipes and Strategies for the Week Ahead is written by Amanda and Merrill and is available for pre-order now. The book will be released on October 18th, 2016.
While the community driven aspect is critical, maintaining a strong brand and editorial voice is equally important to the Food52 team. “Food52 isn’t just an open-ended community,” Amanda says. “It’s a delicate balance of our community, company, voice, and visual identity. Our instinct was right. People want guidance and leadership. They want to know that there are actual human beings behind the site that they’re contributing to.”
Delicate is precisely the right word. Food is an intimate part of our lives. According to Merrill, the way we enjoy and prepare it makes “our kitchens a gateway into our homes.” The assertion strongly influences the team’s e-commerce store featuring products like copper nesting bowls and Italian knives.
How you eat is how you live.
Since launching in 2013, the store’s grown to offer a broader range of home essentials such as sheets and gardening tools which reign among the company’s highest selling products. “The home is an extension of the kitchen. With the help of our community, we’ve created a world that we all want to be a part of. It didn’t make sense to draw a line at the kitchen door,” Merrill says.
The responsibility of shepherding that world drives every decision Amanda, Merrill, and their tight-knit team makes for the Food52 community. They specifically discussed this in light of the creation of (Not) Recipes. The aforementioned app was initially designed to be a condensed rendition of the Food52 website. However, five months in, the team was dissatisfied with what they’d created. “We all felt bored by it. We didn’t feel like we were doing anything that was additive or a step forward for our brand,” Amanda says. “We knew that if were going to release this as a special product it needed to say something about what is happening in the world.”
We forced ourselves to stop and ask: What is missing in this space?
They landed on this concept which is an evolution of their longstanding (Not) Recipes column. “There are times in every startup where you have to take a step back and throw in the towel. It’s not easy to do,” Merrill says. Answering hard questions and overcoming the discomfort of telling five team members who have been working on a project full-time to start completely from scratch is a daunting task.
You have to persevere through discomfort to arrive at the right place.
The same discomfort spans into the critical decisions the founders are required to make on a daily basis. “Over and over again Merrill and I find ourselves in a place where we have to ask hard questions: Is this the right person for the role? Is this the investor we want? Is this the path that we want to go down?” As with all startups, it’s chaotic but according to Merrill, “chaos is healthy for the creative process.”
True chefs, they embrace the ever-changing landscape and encourage their team members to do the same. “We continually remind ourselves that chaos can be really valuable. Not utter chaos, just around the edges. It means that you’re taking risks and moving forward.”
While creativity is constantly thriving in their beautiful office, the accompanying chaos is mitigated by complete transparency. All Food52 conference rooms have windows on three sides so every team member can look inside and see what’s happening. The mentality extends to their board decks, financials, fundraising, and more.
“We share every bit of information that we can. We want everyone to feel like they understand the details of our goals and how we can achieve them together. People do their best work when there’s clear air,” Merrill says.
The air is also constantly wafted with smells of dishes like Creamy Pesto Pasta and Siracha Cheddar Cornbread Waffles that gather team members around the test kitchen. The best recipes are celebrated by ringing the Food52 Dinner Bell. “People come to try new foods, have conversations, and socialize. Those are the moments that really add up. It’s a family atmosphere. People really care about each other here.”
Images retrieved from Food52, Bon Appetit, and Business Insider.