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EPISODE 39

Ecommerce Food for Thought

With Amanda Hesser, co-founder and CEO of Food52

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Amanda Hesser believes that food is at the center of a life well-lived, and it is that belief that led her to co-found Food52 in 2009. 

Food52 is a community-centered blog and eCommerce store that reaches more than 24 million people a month. But no platform builds itself, and in the case of Food52, this massive community of users was brought together through a set of unique engagement tactics that Amanda has iterated on and refined over the decade-plus that the company has been around. It’s a strategy that any company would envy, and one that she shares with us today. 

On this episode of Up Next in Commerce, Amanda explains how she and her team were able to use high- and low-touch ways to get users involved, and why that engagement created a sense of buy-in that made Food52 scalable. As Amanda explains, engaged users don’t just help with content generation, they also provide valuable insights into consumer trends and have helped inform Food52’s latest offering, an exclusive product line that is helping further boost its revenue into the tens of millions.

From tips on building a community, to dropshipping products, and launching a new product line, tune in to find out all of that and more.

Main Takeaways:

  • Building A Community: The platforms that last are those that give users a sense of ownership in the community being created. Engagement is necessary to achieve that end, but not everyone wants to engage in the same way. That’s why it’s important to create high-touch and low-touch ways to get — and keep — people involved.
  • Getting the Feedback You Need: Your customers are full of ideas on what’s working, what’s not, and what to try instead. But tapping into those ideas is easier said than done. To access that honest feedback, you need to meet your customers where they are. Generic product surveys often go ignored. Instead, hang out on social media, ask open-ended questions, and engage with your customers in an organic way.
  • It’s Never Easy: Whether you are creating content or building a user base, there are no infallible methods to find success. You can’t be wedded to any one idea, platform, channel or content type. Try new things, explore new strategies, and don’t fall into the trap of becoming complacent just because one thing is working right now.

For an in-depth look at this episode, check out the full transcript below. Quotes have been edited for clarity and length.

Key Quotes:

“A lot of great companies are born out of an unsatisfying consumer experience, and that definitely was a piece of what drove us to create Food52.”

“When you’re building a brand, when you’re really trying to create an emotional connection with your readers and your followers, it takes time. It’s not something you can do overnight….We started focused on content because we understand the power of content to build that relationship. And also to really build brand identity and that was to us, the most important thing that we could do in the beginning. And then we methodically kind of added, layered on all the things that we do now. And I think that even if you were starting today, that is the way to do it.”

“We created lots of different high-touch and low-touch ways for people to have meaningful engagement and involvement in the curation of the content, and that was something that really hadn’t been done well before. We felt like it was a way to not only build community, but also create a scalable model and send the message that this is a community-driven company that cares a lot about high-quality content, and we can build this together.”

“Food is inherently social, and we wanted to create ways online that you could really feel connected to one another, but likewise, I think it’s really important for our team to feel connected to our community and to what we’re doing and their thoughts on what we’re doing. … Our presence and engagement is I think just as important in terms of allowing people to feel like it’s not just that they’re connecting with each other, but that this hub through which they are connecting with other people has a sense of place and of people.” 

“Commerce is very much about relationships, and it’s not just about people wanting to sell their products, but they want to sell them through outlets that they get along with, where you really are partnering with each other.”

“It’s never easy and that’s okay, and that’s what makes it interesting. Because you have to constantly be nimble and experiment and keep evolving. I think that’s been really key, not getting too wedded to any one thing that’s working.”

Mentions:

Bio:

Amanda Hesser is co-founder and CEO of Food52, a leading innovator in the food, cooking, and home space named one of the world’s most innovative companies by Fast Company in 2020. Earlier in her career, she was a reporter, feature writer, and food editor at The New York Times and authored several award-winning books including Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover’s Courtship, with Recipes, The Cook and the Gardener, as well as The Essential New York Times Cookbook, a New York Times best-seller. Amanda is currently editing its 10th Anniversary Edition, with 50 new recipes, which will be published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2021. She is the co-author of three Food52 cookbooks, including her most recent A New Way to Dinner, written with co-founder Merrill. Amanda has been named one of the 50 most influential women in food by Gourmet, played herself in the Nora Ephron film Julie & Julia, created the Twitter app Plodt, and served on President Obama’s Commission on White House Fellowships. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and twins.

Up Next in Commerce is brought to you by Salesforce Commerce Cloud. Respond quickly to changing customer needs with flexible Ecommerce connected to marketing, sales, and service. Deliver intelligent commerce experiences your customers can trust, across every channel. Together, we’re ready for what’s next in commerce. Learn more at salesforce.com/commerce

Transcript:

Stephanie:

Welcome back to another episode of Up Next in Commerce, this is your host, Stephanie Postles, co-founder of Mission.org. Today on the show, we have Amanda Hesser, the co-founder and CEO of Food52.

Stephanie:

Amanda, welcome!

Amanda:

Thank you so much for having me, hello.

Stephanie:

So, I was just looking through the Food52 website, and it’s absolutely beautiful. I love everything about it, the theme, the concept, I mean, the design, really, really beautiful. Tell me a little bit about how you came upon starting it. What made you want to found that?

Amanda:

Sure. Well, my co-founder Merill Stubbs and I co-founded it together, and we did so because we were both journalists and editors and trained cooks, so we were professionals in the field, but we were professionals because it was a passion of ours. We love food, we love home, we love cooking and traveling and eating, and we just felt that a couple things were happening. One was just that food was really shifting from being this niche topic in our culture to something that was just much more ingrained in Americans’ identities and lifestyles, frankly.

Amanda:

And there was this real sea change happening in the industry and that was really exciting to us, as people who care about food. But we also felt like as a result, what we were being served with as consumers, meaning the content that we had available to us, the products, the conversation, interaction, the community was lacking and really wasn’t keeping up with the evolution of its place in our culture, and we felt like there was an opportunity to serve people better to create a very different kind of company than had existed before, one that was much more a 360-degree and also selfishly, we wanted to create this world and this hub for ourselves. You know? We felt a lot of great companies are born out of an unsatisfying consumer experience, and I think that definitely was a piece of what drove us to create Food52.

Stephanie:

That’s awesome. So, how long has it been around?

Amanda:

So, we launched Food52 in September of 2009, so we are 11 years old, which is both I think on one hand, is an incredible accomplishment and is also… It is not a surprise to us that it has taken us sort of this amount of time to get where we are, because we understood going in that when you’re building a brand, when you’re really trying to create an emotional connection with your readers and your followers, that it takes time. It’s not something you can do overnight. On the other hand, being a startup and being 11 years old, I think once you pass the three-year mark, you start entering dinosaur-hood.

Stephanie:

Yeah, everyone else that you started with is gone. You’re like, “Oh, it’s just me left.”

Amanda:

Yeah, there is a survival feeling, which is nice. But also that it’s an industry and world that is always looking for the next. So, if you’ve made it beyond three years, you’re no longer the news. But it’s actually I think in many ways, in terms of running the company, it’s been so great to… Actually, I think once we hit kind of eight years, where we’re really not only just more of an established company, but able to really broaden what we were covering as a media company, really ambitiously pursue our commerce business.

Amanda:

The business just became much more interesting, and it’s a complex business, so it’s not something that you can… We started focused on content because we understand the power of content to build that relationship. And also to really build brand identity and that was to us, the most important thing that we could do in the beginning. And then we methodically kind of added, layered on all the things that we do now. And I think that even if you were starting today, that is the way to do it, because you couldn’t… A, you couldn’t get funding to do all the things that we do now. But also, we wouldn’t want to, because it’s sort of… You really need to build that relationship and you can’t just kind of [inaudible] press the consumer with like, books and a site and recipes and content across cooking and home, and a presence on all the social channels. There’s a lot of stuff that we do that I think had to sort of slowly evolve.

Stephanie:

So, yeah. I want to kind of dive into the evolution of your brand, because I think I recently read that you guys reach 24 million people month, is that right?

Amanda:

Yes, mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Stephanie:

That’s amazing. So, I want to kind of hear how did you all start out, and then where are you now?

Amanda:

Sure. So, as I mentioned earlier, we started by focusing on content, and we started very much in the kitchen. Because we felt that is the core of our premise, which is that we see food at the center of a well-lived life. And we serve people who believe in that. We felt like the kitchen and cooking was always going to be kind of our core strength, and so when we began, the vast majority of our content was focused on cooking. We did recipe contests, and we did that because it was a way to test a content model that we felt like was underused online. Which was there was lots of user-generated content, but it wasn’t done in a way that really served other readers well and really celebrated the content creators. We wanted to become this platform for them, and what we provided was in some ways, you could look at it as production services, right? People could contribute their recipes, and then we would photograph, then we would test them, and then we would distribute them across a bigger platform, our platform.

Amanda:

And that was the way that we built community and we created lots of ways for people to get involved. So, it wasn’t just for the people who were creating recipes, it was also for people who if you wanted to become a recipe tester, you could do that, or if you wanted to vote on the recipe contest. We created lots of different kind of high-touch and low-touch ways for people to have meaningful engagement and involvement in the curation of the content, and that was something that really hadn’t been done well before, and we felt like it was a way to not only build community, but also create a scalable model and send the message that this is a community-driven company that cares a lot about high-quality content, and we can build this together. And we can start with recipes, and then we can build out from there.

Amanda:

And what we did do was through our recipe contests, we were able to identify really great home cooks who maybe they had a blog, maybe they didn’t, but they didn’t have a platform that was sizeable. And we were able to provide that for them, and we got them to then write articles for us, and some have done cookbooks for us and many of them have gone on to do their own cookbooks. And I think that building that sort of trust and that relationship in the early days with our community is what has allowed us to get to where we are now, which is a much bigger site, and we still have recipe contests, but fewer of them. But we have other ways for people to be really deeply involved in what we do. And so, for instance, I’ll just give you kind of a smattering of examples.

Amanda:

We have a hotline and on our hotline, anyone can ask any cooking or home or food question, and it gets answered by the community and answers can get voted up or down in a kind of stack overflow fashion. And so that’s a community resource. We do our own kind of set of social contests on Instagram. That’s really how we built our Instagram community and following was through creating a hashtag called #F52Brands, where we named themes and then people would tag us with photographs relevant to that theme, and then we would repost our favorites. And so, people posted, tagged us, let their friends know, and that’s how we built our following which is at 2.8 million. We have a product line called Five Two, and we have a drop ship shop where we sell hundreds of products, really thousands of SKUs at this point, and those are products that are produced by other vendors, that we drop ship through our site and our platform.

Amanda:

But we wanted to create our own line of products once we had gotten our sea legs in commerce. And so, when we went to do that, it made total sense for us to actually call on our community for their input on the products, and not just in a shallow way, but a really kind of deep and extensive way. We had the data on what people were shopping for, what was selling well on our site, what materials. But we really wanted to hear… and our first product, just to give you a specific example, our first product was a cutting board.

Amanda:

Now we already sold a lot of cutting boards, so we knew what materials sold, what price point sold, what sizes sold. But we really wanted to just go to our community and say, “What do you want?” In your ideal cutting board, what does it look like? What is it made of? What do you use it for? What features do you want? And we did a survey that was 11 questions, which goes against all rules of surveys, too long. And more than 10,000 people answered, and in great detail what they wanted. And so, we created a product that reflected their feedback, and that’s how that has formed the DNA of that whole product line, is using the input of our community to create better cooking and home products than we could have otherwise come up with ourselves.

Stephanie:

That’s amazing. Such a good evolution of the business. How are you encouraging your community to fill out those surveys or want to engage? I mean, I’m sure there’s your power users who are like, “Anything Amanda does or puts out or the brand puts out, we’re ready to help.” But then for newer people, I’m sure there’s a little bit more maybe convincing, so how do you strike that balance to get people to help decide on the product decisions or what’s next?

Amanda:

Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a couple of different ways that we do it. One is as we saw that there was great interest in having a say in the products we created, we decided to create what we call the Five Two Design Team, and it’s essentially a communication channel for that group who wants to have all the latest news on what products we’re thinking about, what surveys are coming up, what products are launching. They get a sneak peek. They help us test those products, we’ll send them prototypes. And so, people could sign up for that. So, that’s one way that people could kind of engage at whatever level they’re interested in, but of course, that also attracts people who tend to want to be more engaged. The cutting board survey I think is maybe a bit of an outlier in that it’s probably one of the more extensive surveys we’ve done.

Amanda:

What we tend to do is kind of lighter touch things on social. So, we’ll go on Instagram and we’ll ask three to five questions on an Instagram story. And you can vote right there on the story, so we give you the choices and just press a button and let us know, and then we do like to make sure that we give open-ended, sort of open field questions so that people who are extra passionate or who have detailed information they want to share, they have that opportunity. But they can do it in a medium that’s right in front of them. For instance, if they’re on Instagram already, we want them to be able to do it right there, not have to flick over to our site and fill something out.

Amanda:

And I think this is not just with our product line, I think this is with everything we do, is meet people where they are and serve them well where they are. And so, that’s really the way we think about it, and we also try to frankly, just make it fun. So, it’s not just these surveys to feel like we’re giving a homework assignment. We want them to be presented in a fun way, and it should be entertaining, but it also should be substantive.

Stephanie:

Yep, I love that. So, you’re getting a bunch of data from these surveys and from the community. Are there any tools or tech or are you using AI or ML or anything to kind of sort through all this data to help make decisions, whether it’s for new products, or a new direction that the community wants or anything?

Amanda:

I would love to say yes. The answer is no. I mean, we have just found honestly that the best way to… We’ve created for some of the survey answers, our team will create pivot tables so they can kind of group things together. But frankly, the best ideas have come from just reading through people’s answers. I think we’ve gotten better at structuring the questions we’re asking, so that many of them can be answered through multiple choice and therefore, you have very straight up data. But the best product features, they come from those open field questions, and we want to make sure that there’s space for that and that we are reading through them. And we also have a group, it’s kind of VIP shoppers, called Club Sandwich.

Stephanie:

I like that name.

Amanda:

And we reach out to them and we ask them for feedback, and actually, I guess with Five Two, we do this too. And sometimes, we’ll just send notes to the group and we’ll say to the Five Two Design Team, “Hey, we’d love to hear your thoughts on X, Y, and Z, or if you have any product ideas, let us know.” And we always say, “We read every email.” And it’s true. We just, we do. I mean, maybe there will be a point at which we can’t do that, but we’re a pretty sizable business, and I think that we created the community because we wanted people to feel like they could connect with each other.

Amanda:

Food is inherently social, and we wanted to create ways online that you could really feel connected to one another, but likewise, I think it’s really important for our team to feel connected to our community and to what we’re doing and their thoughts on what we’re doing. I think when you create more of a wall, that’s when you start having… That’s when you can have real challenges in your comment section, and you can attract trolls. Our presence and engagement is I think just as important in terms of allowing people to feel like it’s not just that they’re connecting with each other, but that this hub through which they are connecting with other people has a sense of place and of people.

Stephanie:

Yep, yeah. That’s great. I think a good reminder too about crafting survey responses in a thoughtful way, so then you can actually curate the data easily, but then also leaving the long-form answers.

Stephanie:

So, one thing I saw was a mention of the film Julie & Julia, and I wanted to hear about that and some opportunities that have come up while building Food52.

Amanda:

Sure. Well, that particular opportunity came up based on a story I wrote in the New York Times when I worked there. It was actually the sort of dawn of food blogs, and this blogger Julie wrote a very funny blog, which believe it or not, had no food photos because blogs didn’t even have photos back then-

Stephanie:

That’s great.

Amanda:

… about cooking every recipe and mastering the art of French cooking. And she had an amazing writing voice, very funny. So, I wrote this story about her and it got a lot of attention, and then eventually, Nora Ephron wrote the screenplay for Julie & Julia, where she kind of took Julie’s blog and then also juxtaposed it against this memoir or… I guess, yeah. It was a memoir of Julia Childs’ time in France. And then created the movie script out of that. So, yeah. So, I ended up playing the part of myself interviewing Julie in her Long Island City apartment, just like I did in real life. And then that sort of story coming out, and having a big impact on her career.

Stephanie:

That’s so fun. That sounds like just a very fun and cool experience to have now.

Amanda:

Yeah, yeah. I always joke that I had the perfect Hollywood career. I auditioned, which I did actually have to audition for the part for myself.

Stephanie:

That’s great.

Amanda:

And got the part, it was… Meryl Streep was in the movie. The movie was a success, and now I’m out. I don’t ever have to try again. I was like, “I’m good.”

Amanda:

But yeah, it was a fun dip into a very different world.

Stephanie:

That’s really cool. So to shift over into your guys’ product line, Five Two, I wanted to hear a little bit about when you knew it was the right time to launch your own products instead of sourcing them from other vendors.

Amanda:

We launched commerce in 2013, and we didn’t launch Five Two until 2018. So, I would say that we took our time getting experience in the commerce space, and I say that but with a caveat, which is that commerce, and I would say especially… Well actually, retail and ecommerce have gone through such immense changes and shifts in the past decade that everyone’s learning all the time, even if we’ve been in the business forever. When we started our drop ship business, there were so many companies who just didn’t drop ship.

Amanda:

So there were great products out in the world that we couldn’t sell because the companies were not willing to do a drop ship model. They wanted only to sell inventory, which we understand, but we were betting on the fact that the world would shift and the industry would shift, and our bet has paid off. But it did take time to really build up a strong assortment of products in our category to build relationships. I think that was sort of the big [inaudible] of learning for us, was that commerce is very much about relationships, and it’s not just about people wanting to sell their products, but they want to sell them through outlets that they get along with, where you really are partnering with each other.

Amanda:

That takes time to evolve. So, I think the first couple of years was very much about relationship-building, really understanding logistics. We built our own commerce platform. We don’t use Shopify. We didn’t do Magento or any of those things. We built it from scratch because the nature of our commerce business is very different. It functions differently than the sort of larger platforms allow for.

Stephanie:

Yeah, there’s a lot going on there. Drop shipping, your own product, blogs, community. A ton.

Amanda:

Yeah. Yeah. So, we had our hands full with things that we needed to both learn but also refine. We built this platform. It did what it was supposed to, but for the kind of commerce business we are today, it was simplistic, so we’ve had to over the years continue to develop the platform itself, improve our checkout, improve basically kind of every aspect of it too, kind of reflect the kind of business we are now.

Amanda:

Anyway, so the first couple of years we knew was going to be learning and then also, the other thing that we learned was what people trust us for and what do they look to us for, and what do they want to be buying from us? Once we felt like we had a real handle on that, then it was a matter of… I think everyone from probably day one wanted to create our own product line. But deciding when we’re ready I think ultimately just took us saying, “We’re going to do it this year,” and that was 2018. You know? It was just pulling the trigger, because everyone’s busy, right? In an organization like ours. And so, it’s not that people don’t want to take on something new and big like this, but they know that if we do, they’re going to have to re-organize all their work streams and really devote new time to this.

Amanda:

And so, it was a matter of finally just kind of biting the bullet and saying, “We’re doing it, and we’re going to aim for a fall launch,” and then working backwards from there therefore, to see how to make it happen. And I think similarly, our growth into retail will be a similar thing. Are you ever ready for retail? I don’t know. It felt last year to us like a good time, and we’d started exploring it very seriously, and then COVID hit and so we just hit pause, but we’re thinking about it again for next year. Obviously, post-COVID, knock on wood that it will be post-COVID, it may look quite different. But I think it’s something that we are committed to pursuing and better understanding and figuring out what makes sense for us.

Stephanie:

Yep, that makes sense. So, you were just mentioning COVID and I want to hear a little bit about how has that shifted your business? Because a lot of people are home now. I’m sure maybe you have a lot more orders as well, because people are wanting to cook and trying new recipes, where maybe they didn’t have time before. But what does that look like for you all now? What have you seen behind the scenes?

Amanda:

Yeah. It’s been a tremendous year for us in terms of our audience growth and our revenue growth. Obviously not something that anyone would have wished to have spawned that growth, but it is what it is. I think what we’ve come away from this having learned was a couple of things. One is just it’s been a real validation of what we do. I think we in our hearts have from the very beginning understood that food and home are such incredible and vital parts of one’s life, and that they are worth investing time and thought into, and that’s really what we’ve been pushing as a brand since day one. We were building this company knowing that there was kind of a growing understanding of that. I think COVID really just rapidly accelerated people’s understanding, I think across our entire culture. Right?

Stephanie:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), yep.

Amanda:

Because I think suddenly people saw that having a place where you feel safe and comfortable and being able to feed yourself and your family and loved ones is just so important, and so it’s been great to be a company where we feel like we can serve people in a positive fashion during a time that’s really stressful, and that… and I think that we’re able to see now what specifically people are interested in. We’ve been able to adapt with our product lines. For instance, there’s a textile company that we’ve worked with for many years, and their main products, there was less demand for.

Amanda:

But they were able to make masks, and so we sold masks. We’ve sold tens of thousands of masks. And not just through them, but through some other vendors who also had the capabilities to make them. There are categories that have shot up that were previously doing fine, but now have become really significant. For instance, hand soap, hand sanitizer, things like that. And then obviously, our sort of traditional kitchenware and kitchen gear sales have really gone… have wildly increased because yes, more people are cooking and they’re home. And they’re realizing, “Oh, my saute pan isn’t in such good shape, or I actually need a different size,” and ideally, we’re helping them out with that.

Amanda:

But then I also think just from a maybe more unexpected internal team benefit that we have seen is that we had some people who were working remote previously, but we had offices… We have offices on 26th Street in New York City, and that’s where sort of the vast majority of our team worked. And when we had to shut down, we had to shut down our photo studios, our video studios, our test kitchen, we were really faced with a big challenge of how do we produce content without all of that support? Sometimes, not having everything really inspires creativity and I actually think that what we’ve learned is that we can do a ton with very little and also that people respond to it in a different way.

Amanda:

We’re sort of known for our visual aesthetic, our photography, and kind of the sort of beauty of what we do. And that’s great. I think we also pride ourselves with being accessible and relatable, and I think while we were achieving that, I think we’ve learned from COVID that we have so much more potential if we’re actually shooting in real people’s homes, not just in our pretty studio. But if we’re showing kind of real life, it makes people feel much more at ease and also more open to the content and feel like they can be a part of that. And so, that’s been really eye-opening and exciting, because I think for having… Our content team is 30 plus people. And having that many kind of creative minds together, I think has been really inspiring for all of us to just think differently about what we do and what we can do.

Stephanie:

Yeah, I’ve heard of quite a few brands saying the same thing of, “We maybe never would have tried this model before, because maybe we thought the way we were doing it was what everyone expected and wanted,” and it’s been in some ways a good shake-up to be able to see kind of, “Oh, this is actually not only just working, but it’s also maybe something to keep for the long term.”

Amanda:

Yeah. And in fact, it’s a very common comment on our Instagram TV videos, is “Please don’t go back to doing these videos in your office.”

Stephanie:

Oh, wow. So are you guys going to stick with that? And/or are you going to do a mix going forward, once you can re-enter the office?

Amanda:

Yeah. We are. So, one piece of our office we have reopened is our photo studios, and primarily for things like our product shots in our shop. [inaudible] in a setting. We have not gone back to doing kind of our food videos and things like that.

Stephanie:

So I wanted to quickly talk through user acquisitions? So, I know you’ve talked quite a bit about Instagram, and I wanted to hear how you find new users, and what platforms are working for you or what strategies outside of the contests and Instagram stories, what else are you guys experimenting with and seeing success in?

Amanda:

Yeah. There’s no silver bullet, and that’s good. I remember the early days when everyone was just relying so heavily on Facebook to grow their traffic, and that was when social sites were really fine with referring back to sites. And I remember that we were uncomfortable with that then, and we didn’t… It felt sort of too easy, right? That’s one thing that I think people who have been in content for a while, it’s never easy and that’s okay, and that’s what makes it interesting, right? Because you have to constantly be nimble and experiment and keep evolving.

Amanda:

And so, I think that’s been really key, is not getting too wedded to any one thing that’s working and seeing it as not just… that that’s not a lack of efficiency, it’s actually an opportunity to make sure that you’re reaching people across lots of different channels. So, there are a couple of different ways we do it. One is sort of channel-specific, right? This year, we launched TikTok. We’re still just early days there starting to experiment. We got into Reels, we really expanded our IGTV. We’re starting to really invest more time and understanding where we should… how we can add value to Pinterest, right? And create an experience that people will be interested in. So, I think that constantly sort of making sure that you’re experimenting, trying new things, and then adjusting across different channels. We just launched a podcast this week.

Stephanie:

Oh, nice. Congrats. [crosstalk] What’s it called?

Amanda:

Oh, thank you. So, it’s called The Genius Recipe Tapes. And it’s based on Jamie’s Recipes, which is our most popular column. And these are recipes that… It might be a recipe for something like meatloaf, but there’s something about that meatloaf recipe that has a particular technique or an unexpected ingredient that really changes the way you cook meatloaf forever. So, it’s these recipes that really are stand-outs, and a celebration of the people who have come up with them. And so-

Stephanie:

That’s cool.

Amanda:

… Genius Recipe Tapes grew out of the videos that we do where Kristin, who writes Genius Recipes, she invites the creator of the recipe onto the video to talk about how they came up with it, and just talk about their life and cooking. And there was so much good material that we realized that we could create a podcast out of it. So, that’s our first podcast. We have one called Burnt Toast, which is on hiatus right now. But this is the first in a push towards building a podcast network.

Amanda:

So kind of expanding across channels is one way, but the other is expanding across the landscape of contributors who we work with and just really broadening it, so that we are working with people in lots of different voices, lots of different perspectives, and also lots of different expertise, so that we can go deeper on topics like bread or spirits, but we also can bring people who just have a really sort of unique perspective on cooking or home and who will have their own followings, and who we can kind of fold into our world a bit and broaden our audience by reaching theirs, and vice versa, help them build their own following by having them be on our platform.

Stephanie:

Yeah. Yeah, I love that. So, I want to hear a little bit about your podcast strategy, of course, that’s top of mind for us. I mean, we have a lot of brands coming to us, asking to help them build a podcast or think through that, and I’d love to hear your idea around what does success look like when you’re thinking about building out these podcasts, and what should maybe other ecommerce leaders think about when they’re thinking, “Oh, I want to build a podcast for my brand?” How are you guys approaching that?

Amanda:

Well, the way we approached it was we looked at the landscape of what kinds of podcasts were in our space. And obviously, we had some sense of that based on our existing podcast, and feeling like there were… Are there unexplored topics or voices that weren’t kind of getting out there, or even just concepts? Previously, we had this one podcast, and we were kind of reliant on it to kind of do everything, so to speak, in our podcast footprint. And I think that what we realized is that in topics like cooking and home, there’s a lot to cover, and there are a lot of specialized interests.

Amanda:

And we felt like if we could create a suite of shows and we could create some in-house, but we could also again act as the sort of platform for creators by partnering with them to create shows that they would like to do but maybe wouldn’t have the full source of… Oh, sorry, to give the full resources to do themselves, then we could build on this idea of a suite of podcasts that are around related topics. And then do a lot of cross-promotion between them, and then ideally monetize them collectively, as opposed to trying to just build up one show.

Stephanie:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I love that. Cool, so we don’t have much time left, and I want to hop into a lightning round which is where I ask you a question and you have a minute or less to answer.

Stephanie:

All right, so lightning round brought to you by our friends at Salesforce Commerce Cloud. I’m going to throw a question your way, be ready. I’m actually starting with three different ones this time that I haven’t asked before, but I think it’ll be interesting to hear your answers to this. So, these three questions are going to be called Lessons Learned or Hiccups, and it’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I ask this question of something you learned or wouldn’t do again, or would tell a new founder like, “Oh, make sure you avoid this when starting this.” So the first lesson learned is around drop shipping. What’s a good lesson there, or what’s a hiccup you made early on where you’re like, “Make sure you don’t repeat this?”

Amanda:

We launched in August, and for November, we decided to sell frozen turkeys, heritage turkeys. So it was a fresh ingredient, that can spoil if not shipped properly in an efficient fashion. And we sold 80 turkeys that year, which we felt like was a pretty big amount given that we had just launched. And 79 of them got to the homes on time, happily, everyone had their Thanksgiving-

Stephanie:

That’s good.

Amanda:

… ready to go. But you don’t want to not get somebody’s turkey to them for Thanksgiving. So that one person’s turkey took five of us to track down and then replace and then send an apology gift basket. It took us two days. And so, the person got their turkey for Thanksgiving, but we came away knowing that we were not ready, sort of from a supply chain logistics perspective to be handling fresh foods. So, we stuck to our dry goods.

Stephanie:

Oh my gosh, that’s a great story. I mean, the customer might not like this, but having a good social story about that of like, “Where in the world is Sharon’s turkey?” And trying to figure out where it went.

Amanda:

Well, there’s a UPS truck broken down on the side of the road in Florida, and I guess another truck came up and was like, all the packages were shipped over, but the turkey did not make it-

Stephanie:

Oh no!

Amanda:

… in the transfer. And so, somewhere in Florida was that turkey, and pretty close to its final destination, but it just never made it there. But anyway, we learned all sorts about sourcing turkeys, finding delivery companies in Florida, and it’s always… Yes, it was a race and every little triumph of figuring out one piece of the logistics was fun. But it was not the most relaxing Thanksgiving for us.

Stephanie:

Oh my gosh. Well, that’s a pretty good lesson when it comes to drop shipping. One, be careful if you’re around holidays. I like that, because a customer might actually get upset, and then yeah, the perishable thing is tricky. That’s a good one. All right, the next lesson learned is around creating a new product line. What would you advise people against trying or any hiccups you had early on with that?

Amanda:

Well, I think the hiccup we’ve had with new products that we’ve developed is frankly, just not building production delays into our timelines. And it’s hard to estimate, right? But I think when you’re new and trying to get a product line launched, those launch dates have such importance, and if you can’t stick to them, or you… If you can’t stick to them, yeah, it causes a lot of high blood pressure. So, yeah. I think that mapping out realistically and not… and making sure that you’re building in as many buffers as possible. It is best. What one of the things that we did to kind of get around this was what we did was pre-sales. Sometimes if a product was not going to be able to be released on the date that we thought, we would do a pre-sale for it, being clear about when the actual delivery date was. But it allowed us to kind of soft launch a product and let our community know about it without having a long delay between product launches.

Stephanie:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, that’s a good answer. All right, easier questions up next. What is a favorite recipe you’re trying out right now?

Amanda:

Hmm. Well, let me see here. What am I going to be trying in the near future? Oh. So, Joanne Chang who has Flor Bakery in Boston is known for her egg sandwich, and it’s a baked… She bakes the eggs in a water bath, and they’re just so light and fluffy, they’re one of the most popular… It’s a really popular recipe on our site. And I’ve eaten them, but I haven’t made them. I’m going to just follow her recipe sometime this weekend. And I like the idea of not having to fry an egg last minute before making an egg sandwich. I like the idea of it sort of getting cooked in this very sort of slow, controlled environment so you can have a great breakfast sandwich without adding stress to your morning.

Stephanie:

Yeah, oh, that sounds interesting. I’ve never heard of baking an egg in a water bath before. I’ve heard of poached eggs, but never baking it. So, I will have to also find that recipe. We need to get the link to that so our listeners can try it out as well.

Amanda:

Great.

Stephanie:

All right, and the last question, slightly harder. What one thing will have the biggest impact on ecommerce in the next year?

Amanda:

I mean, I think it’s what we’re seeing now. COVID has just accelerated this industry shift, where larger, more traditional retail companies were being squeezed by ecommerce and the retail landscape was shifting. Obviously, we’ve seen a lot of bankruptcy since COVID hit. So, it kind of sped up the process a bit. And I think that ecommerce, most ecommerce companies have benefited from people being home more and people not wanting to go out to stores. I do think that mindset of ordering online, while obviously it was well underway before COVID, I think is going to be more firmly part of the way people shop than maybe they had previously. So, I do think ecommerce is poised to have a great benefit. And I think for companies like ours, the big challenge is, if they’ve had this influx of new customers is, “Okay, now how do you keep them and how do you keep serving them well beyond this extraordinary and unusual time?”

Stephanie:

Yep, yeah. That’s a great answer. Well, Amanda, this has been such a fun interview. I’m a little bit hungry now after hearing about that baked egg. But where can people find out more about you and Food52?

Amanda:

Oh. Well, on Food52.com and on our social channels, which are @Food52 and @Home52. And we also have a bunch of cookbooks, I hope you will check us out.

Stephanie:

Cool, thanks so much for joining.

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