At Food52, Thanksgiving Is Super Bowl Season

Startup Mixes E-Commerce, Native Ads

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Food52 co-founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs
Food52 co-founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs

With Thanksgiving just days away, home cooks are visiting Food52 for tips on brining a turkey and pulling together vegetarian gravy. There's also an urgent plea for help with a wine-enriched mushroom consommé.

"Right now is basically our Super Bowl," a Food52 spokeswoman said.

The same could be said of any number of epicurean sites, but Food52 -- a startup founded in 2009 by former New York Times Magazine food editor Amanda Hesser -- has a rabid fan base with very particular tastes (see: the consommé crisis). Among its more than 31,000 recipes, 98% are submitted by readers, who also contribute 70% of the columns. Many aren't compensated for their work.

"It's clearly got a small, passionate community of foodies they understand and to whom they flawlessly cater," said Gina Bianchini, CEO of social-networking startup Mightybell. "They are a great example of the power and value of a passionate, niche community."

The site offers a mix of recipes along with a tightly curated e-commerce site called Provisions, which is the digital storefront Martha Stewart might run if she was a hipster. There's a clay gravy boat ($28), a DIY grapefruit bitters kit ($48) and an antique horn-and-wood acoustic amplifier ($720). The site plans to sell its wares in real life this December during a Food52 Holiday Market in New York.

About two-thirds of Food52's revenue stems from sales on Provisions (before merchants receive their share of the proceeds) and one-third from advertising, according to Ms. Hesser, declining to elaborate on revenue. Most of those campaigns include custom content, whether in the form of video, Instagram posts or sponsored articles.

"Our sponsored content is content we'd be doing anyway," Ms. Hesser said.

Ms. Hesser, Food52's CEO and driving force, is a celebrity among foodies. She wrote the nearly 1,000 -page "The Essential New York Times Cookbook" and appeared in the 2009 film "Julia & Julia" as herself. "Amanda is an incredibly respected and trusted brand name in food," said one of Ms. Hesser's former colleagues at the Times Magazine. "She's a tastemaker."

"She was a booming voice" in the food world, another former Times staffer said.

Ms. Hesser left the Times in 2008 (though she continued to write the Recipe Redux feature until 2011) and teamed up with Merrill Stubbs, a food writer who helped on "The Essential New York Times Cookbook," to eventually start Food52, which they funded with an advance from a cookbook deal.

"We felt there was a need to have one place where you could get everything you need in your cooking life," Ms. Hesser said. "Not only great recipes and smart content and information, but also a social experience and everything from a casserole dish for roasting to glassware to spices."

Food52's audience is a fraction of giants like AllRecipes and, which attract more than 30 million visitors monthly to their desktop and mobile sites. But in October traffic to Food52's desktop and mobile site more than doubled compared with the previous year, reaching 3 million unique visitors, according to analytics firm ComScore. Over the summer, investors poured $6 million into the company, which partnered with fashion line MZ Wallace on a $365 tote bag that is sold on Provisions.

Several ad-buyers with whom Ad Age spoke had not heard of Food52, though they liked it after perusing it. But the site's ad-sales team has struck deals with a number of brands including Starbucks' Evolution Fresh, Filippo Berrio olive oil, Electrolux appliances and Squarespace.

"Almost 100% of their audience is our target," said David Scheiber, consumer marketing leader at Filippo Berio. The olive oil company spent about $150,000 on a campaign with Food52, which created custom videos showing recipes that include Filippo Berio, he added.

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