Food52 and the Unique Space It Occupies on the Food Internet

Connects content with contributors and brands, plus its own products

Food52 partnered with Roca Patrón to create custom glasses to be sold online in addition to being used within new recipes.
Photo by James Ransom

Food52, an independent food publisher, has cracked the code on working with contributors, brands and beautiful photography.

Amanda Hesser, CEO and co-founder of Food52, said the food space back in 2009, when the company launched, was “sorely lacking a way to serve anyone in a comprehensive way.”

So, instead of creating another straightforward recipe database, Hesser partnered with Merrill Stubbs to combine their shared food-writing backgrounds and create Food52 for people like them—people, as Hesser described them, who “cared how we ate and cared how our homes looked and felt.”

Inside Food52, you’ll find recipes, of course, but you’ll also find personal essays that serve as introductions to those recipes; a hotline for when you desperately need help solving a food problem; a community of other home chefs, and some trained ones, too, who are willing to trade tips and tricks; and a store where you can complete the Food52 lifestyle experience.

Throughout the years, the team has crowdsourced multiple cookbooks thanks to the strength of its contributors. The product team has also worked with local creators to design custom plates, glassware and other home goods and decor.

“Because we offer both ends of the spectrum, our interesting content and our shop, that creates a really natural ecosystem,” Lauren Locke, vp of sales, told Adweek. “We didn’t falsely build one to support the other.”

Food52's photography style is always extended to any piece of branded content.
Photo by James Ransom, Graphic by Tim McSweeney

Food52 sees 11 million monthly visitors across platforms, which includes 1 million registered contributors. Among customers of the online store, 57 percent took a “meaningful action” on the site before shopping. In other words, something they interacted with inspired them to make a purchase.

Items in the shop are treated the same as recipes on the site. The photos are shot in the same studio space with plenty of natural lighting (which means the office is often darkened to assist the process), and their own products are frequently featured in original recipes.

Here’s an example of the fluidity and freedom with which Food52 gets to play when it comes to brand partners: While partnering with Roca Patrón in 2016, the Food52 product team decided to work with a maker they’d “worked with forever,” according to Locke, and created a special line of glassware specifically for the promotion. The team designed products to be sold online in the store and created recipes that featured those products, all while partnering with a high-end alcohol brand.

“That’s the beauty of an independent company,” said Hesser. “There aren’t any rules for us or traditions. We get to write the rule book.”

Locked added, “When we meet with brands, it’s really powerful to be able to say we’ll be merchandising their products the same way we merchandise our own.”

Before creating strong brand partnerships, the Food52 ethos has always included a sense of community. The vision was to create a world “where you could find great recipes, great glassware, meet like-minded cooks, ask questions and read great stories,” said Hesser.

The contributor community is basically the early iteration of food influencers, people who amass large social followings thanks to either their smart recipe ideas or highly curated Instagram feeds. After getting to know those contributors over the years, the team at Food52 can now also turn to them to work on branded projects.

“We can tap into our community because we know those people, and we know what they’d be interested in writing about,” said Locke.

“Our editors and producers sometimes fight over projects,” she said. “Working with brand partners means they can work on bigger projects that are well funded and could include longer deep dives into a bigger story.”

Food52’s loyal readers don’t even seem to mind sponsored content. Because it’s treated the same way by producers and editors, Food52 sees three times more engagement on branded content than it gets on other editorial content. And importantly, advertisers see 150,000 engagements on branded content across the site and its social platforms for every $25,000 they spend.

Readers have come to expect levels of quality from both Food52's recipes and photography.
Photo by Bobbi Lin for Food52

The social platforms are a huge part of Food52’s continued success. Emily Butler, vp of marketing, explained that Food52 is “known for our aesthetic and our strength in photography.”

And with over 1.5 million Instagram followers, they’ve gotten the attention of, among others, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chrissy Teigen and Kate Hudson, all leaders in different areas of the food space.

“When we got started, Instagram didn’t exist yet, in addition to a lot of the social web,” said Hesser. “Where we meet our audience has shifted. Today, over half of our traffic comes from our social platforms.”

In developing its “food aesthetic,” moody backdrops combined with striking food details, Food52 appeals to people on a variety of platforms, from Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to email newsletters.

“Some people love reading about food as a way to de-stress for a while,” said Hesser. “Or they like looking at food photography just because it’s so visually pleasing.”

“I have a friend who makes me DVR Chopped for when he’s visiting, but he’s never even made himself a cup of tea,” added Locke. “There are people who just like watching social food videos even if they’re not necessarily a consumer of the products.”

Kyle Orosz

The photography style of the site also lends itself to a unique take on food-centric videos. BuzzFeed’s Tasty videos aren’t the only ones to have risen in popularity lately. Food52’s video views increased by 4,000 percent in 2016. The team experiments with live videos on Facebook and stop-motion videos on Instagram, all with a playful tone, said Locke.

“Our priority on the personal bleeds into everything we do,” said Hesser. “Whether it’s in our recipes or in live events like meetups for our contributors, we want our readers to always recognize our photography and voice.”

If you find a recipe on the site that inspires you, you can probably buy the kind of pan to cook it in. And if you happen upon an interesting saucepan first, you can find exactly what to put in it.

Dinner parties a few years ago were more stuffy affairs than they are now, according to Locke. It was more or less expected that couples would host and cook multiple dishes for their guests.

“Today, you can pick up some beer, someone else can bring soup dumplings, another friend can make a quick kale salad, and that’s an entertaining moment we can be proud of,” said Locke.

“We wanted to create site that had a real sense of place as a way to gather together,” said Hesser, “just like meals do,”