How One New York Times Writer Launched a Food Empire

By
Food52 co-founder Amanda Hesser.
Food52 co-founder Amanda Hesser.Photo: James Ransom

At this week’s WeFestival — a conference for female entrepreneurs — Food52’s co-founder Amanda Hesser will present on a panel about thinking big and starting small. Hesser would know: Food52, which launched at the end of 2009, created an online community for gourmands and cooks long before food media became the dominating force it is today.

Now with a new app, a line of cookbooks, and a podcast, Food52 is no longer just a website but a burgeoning empire, one that Hesser and co-founder Merrill Stubbs hope to grow even bigger. The Cut spoke with Hesser, a former New York Times food editor, about the sacrifices she’s made for her career, how she sees the site growing, and why she’s allergic to meetings.

On how Food52, when it launched in 2009, came at the right time:

[The food landscape online] was very different. It was kind of bleak in our view. It was dominated by a couple of forces, none of which were talking to each other. One was the old-style broadcast media, meaning media that broadcasts at you: This is what you should be cooking, this is what matters. Not really having a conversation, not really embracing the internet culture. Then there were all these blogs cropping up, which was to us the signal that there was an opportunity because it was like all these people saying, “I have all these things that are interesting to say about food and I’m going to put them out on my blog.” There was amazing content happening on blogs, but in these small pockets, sprinkled around. The third dominating force was editorial-less user-generated recipe sites that had definitely captured the momentum around home cooks but really hadn’t figured out a way to make it inspiring or useful to most people. 

It’s been a great evolution. The quality has really ramped up and there’s definitely a much stronger connection between all the great stuff that’s happening offline to what is happening online. It was a complete disconnect. We feel like there are people taking risks with content. Now there are a lot more kinds of content happening: There’s a lot more video, there are fun, cool GIFs, there’s a lot more happening on social. We feel like, in general, this is great because it makes everyone raise their game.

What it was like going to those initial investment pitch meetings as atypical entrepreneurs:

It’s a humbling experience, which I think generally is good. I spent most of my career at the New York Times and if I called someone and I said, “Hi, I’m calling from the New York Times,” people would take my call. It was good, in a way, to not have that backing. We had to earn it every step of the way.

I do think while the venture-capital world has many issues, there is a good process that everyone has to go through. We were two women, I was in my mid-to-late 30s at that time, just had two children, and came from a media background, which at that time was considered basically toxic. We basically had everything working against us. Age, gender, background, and a topic that people weren’t yet taking seriously. It wasn’t just that it was media, it was that it was food. We had basically every strike against us. As a result, we got a lot of nos in the beginning. We found some believers. That’s kind of what you have to do.

We hadn’t raised very much money for a company of our size and that has forced us to be very disciplined as founders. We’ve always wanted to build a real business. We were not building a business where we were scaling and then figuring out what the business model was. We were working on the business model from day one and that has evolved a lot. I’m sure this could just be a sunny interpretation, but we do truly feel kind of grateful for having to build the company the way we have.

I would say that we were atypical. There’s maybe a stereotype, a pattern you see in the startup world: more male, tends to be younger, with a certain kind of background. There’s not a lot of diversity, and I mean that in all senses of the word, we were outliers. I don’t think we thought about it in the beginning, but it’s sort of like we were made aware of that.

On the daily struggle against having meetings:

When you have more people, people tend to gravitate to having more meetings. And I’m allergic to meetings. I actually literally fall asleep in them. I’m trying to kind of break that mind-set of always having to have meetings. Meetings should really be about solving an issue, and there are other ways to do it. That’s also the fun part. Because we’re creative in this business, we can do things however we want, so we don’t have to have meetings. Meetings are not active enough. Everyone’s politely waiting for whoever is speaking to finish speaking, and there’s a short exchange of ideas, and they feel sometimes inefficient, so I get impatient.

[The alternative would be] coming into meetings with someone who leads the meeting, or it’s a standup meeting, or the meeting has a ten-minute time limit on it. Usually you can get most things done in ten minutes. Just having a little purpose. That would apply to sort of what Merrill and I have learned over time — it’s that our time is increasingly limited. We’re learning how to be more and more efficient with our time.

On the sacrifices she’s made to get where she is:

I feel like the main thing I’ve sacrificed is money. That sounds so crude, but you know, we didn’t pay ourselves for almost two years. That’s hard to do in New York City. I drained all my savings. When we took salaries, we paid ourselves what I made in 1997. That’s harsh. That’s a personal sacrifice. I was putting on jeans today and I was thinking about how, for three years, I’d gotten my jeans patched when they got a hole in them because I didn’t want to buy new jeans. I live in Brooklyn Heights and live a perfectly fine life, and I’m not complaining, I’m just saying that, sure, when you’re in your 30s and you’ve just had kids and you’re thinking about college tuition and getting old and stuff, it was definitely a change and sacrifice that me and my husband decided to make.

On how to keep a growing business feeling young and exciting (and learning to love chaos):

I’m anti too much process. We’re now at over 50 people, but when you start going above 50 is when there becomes a lot of calling out for process and HR formalities and all that, we are going to resist it for as long as possible because we just feel like that’s where you quickly turn into a company where everything is formalized. We feel like there is value in some level of chaos and free-formness. We don’t want to lose that kind of spirit in a young company. That’s when interesting, new ways of doing things get figured out.

This interview has been condensed and edited.