Let Them Eat Cake

How to build community through food.

A newsletter about branding, startups, and mission-driven companies aiming to make the world a better place.

👋 Welcome to For The Love, I’m so happy to have you all here! 

Today we’ll be discussing:

  • How Food52 built a community of 16 million active members (and a database of 70,000 recipes along the way)

  • A roundup of new launches, including some bubbly water to get you in the holiday spirit

  • When it comes to funny new products, don’t say we don’t stick our neck out for you

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💛 For The Love of Community

Food52, which sold a majority stake in the company for over $80 million, started simple — specifically, with a layer cake recipe contest. 

According to their pre-launch landing page:

Here's the way Food 52 works: There are 52 weeks in a year, and each week we're going to select categories that go into a cookbook. And then you'll send in recipes that fit those categories. We'll select the best ones and prepare them each week. Then, you'll choose among them, and the winner will go into the cookbook.

Founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, both having been food editors at the New York Times, were more than capable of writing a cookbook on their own. But that wasn’t the point. They wanted to democratize it — to create a space where every home cook has a voice. 

What started as a cookbook is now the go-to online resource for all things home-cooking, including a shop and in-house product line, but what still sits at the core is community involvement.

Their community is now 16 million strong and contributing in a variety of ways. For evidence of how highly Food52 values their community, look no further than their company history, which includes standout recipe contributions by community members, including one who went on to “publish a cookbook and host her own Food Network show. Go Molly!”

So how did they do it?

Well, I spoke to Brinda Ayer, Food52’s Editorial Lead to find out.

All For One And One For All

“They felt like it was a bit of an ivory tower situation,” Brinda told me, of the founders’ perception of the cookbook space. 

“They wanted to bring really exciting recipes, and the people that were enthusiastic about those recipes, all together in one place,” where they could engage with the content and have “a bearing on what kind of content was being offered to them.”

Since their launch, Food52 has hosted themed recipe contests, contributing to the now 70,000 recipes on their website. 

“They felt like they were publishing something on the site, then saw other community members cooking their recipe...and share about it in the comments.” 

It’s not just the fact that community-generated content is being highlighted, it’s that it gets equal billing to content from the founders and editors, making them feel valued.

According to Brinda, “it's almost like democratizing food journalism in a way because our community members are just as likely to write an article on our site as we are. They are also considered food authorities, so there's trust.” 

That’s saying a lot when co-founder Amanda Hesser’s last book, The Essential New York Times Cookbook, was a Times bestseller and the winner of a James Beard Award.

Despite the accolades, she is still very involved and accessible to the Food52 community, personalizing the brand. She even tries to respond to every comment on the cooking videos she publishes. Community members feel a personal connection to the founders, and in turn, the brand.

Tip #1: By eliminating the hierarchy between you and your community, they’ll feel valued, which means more trust, and more engagement. 

Put the Community Front and Center 

It’s impossible to navigate through the site without absorbing that community is a priority for Food52. By that, I mean that it’s literally front and center in the navigation bar. 

Brinda told me:

“The ideal experience for us is that if you go to Food52, you should be able to understand our whole world of offerings. When you go to our homepage, you see that we offer recipes, that we have a recipe contest, we have podcasts and videos, you see that we have a cooking hotline, and a cookbook and baking club — we're a one-stop-shop for everything.”

Tip #2: By highlighting all the resources for community members to engage with, you’ll clearly show that you value your community and make it easy for new members to decide how they want to connect and contribute.

Make Space and Step Aside 

The core of Food52’s community engagement started as recipe posts and comments on the site but has grown to so much more. Regular comments led to friendship, which led to more enthusiasm for the site, and members taking the lead on community-building. Brinda elaborated:

“Facebook is another big place that is a connector for us — we have a completely community-driven Facebook cookbook and baking club, where each month community moderators help the community choose cookbooks, and they cook through them at the same time together. Then they post photos, reviews of the book, and other tips and tricks and helpful advice as it concerns the book...We developed it, but then the community took it and grew it.” 

One of the community’s favorite initiatives was started by one of their own. Food52’s annual holiday swap was initiated and run by community member Noëlle Bittner. It’s a Secret Santa exchange where community members send each other homemade goodies from baked goods to freshly picked veggies.

Co-founder Amanda Hesser told the New York Times:

“There’s something thrilling about receiving a box of goodies from a stranger, who has taken time to bake their favorite cookie recipe for you and package it up with pickles from a local maker or a wooden spoon carved by their uncle.”

As with most things, this year is a little different.

Instead of sending home-made food, community members are encouraged to share recipes or purchase a small locally-made item from the Food52 shop to exchange. A small entry fee and all proceeds from purchases go to No Kid Hungry.

According to Brinda:

“It's just a nice way to incorporate a charitable element into what we're doing and really celebrate this season of giving, while also making it a personalized experience. Community members develop a close, intimate relationship by experiencing each other's lives through their food.”

This experience forges strong ties between community members, and with Food52 for facilitating it.

Tip #3: Create opportunities for community members to connect in meaningful ways, digitally and beyond.

Get Personal

The Food52 Hotline is the Thanksgiving Butterball Hotline for the digital age. It’s a forum for members to ask their most pressing home-cooking questions, and offer up suggestions. Like elsewhere in the Food52 platform, there are editors there to help, but most often it’s other community members that come to the rescue. Brinda told me: 

“It's really a place where people can ask all sorts of off-the-cuff cooking questions, recipe questions, technique questions, anything they want to, and there is a good chance that someone will respond right away, whether it's from the community, someone on our editorial team, or the recipe developers themselves, there's always a friendly voice that's willing to help you out in real-time.” 

And the fact that it’s a person, with a username, not a faceless customer service rep, adds to the authentic, collaborative experience of the community.

“This underpinning of personal touch, and having a real live human there, I think is really what makes our brand different from others. And why people continue to come back to us because it doesn't feel like you're just talking to a corporate entity. It's like you're talking to a real cook. I lead the editorial team and I didn’t go to cooking school, I’m just an avid home cook. And so I think there's that aspect of relating to one another in a really important way.”

Tip #4: Setting an authentic personal tone encourages others to engage and collaborate as well, and forms a more meaningful connection. 

Ask And You Shall Receive 

When the Food52 team decided to branch out into products, they of course went to their community first. Before launching their first product they sent out a survey and 10,000 people responded with all their suggestions for what would make their ideal cutting board. According to Brinda:

“Five Two is our direct-to-consumer line. We put a survey out every single time we're creating a product, and our community tells us what they want to see in those products. They bottle up all of their kitchen wisdom and share it with us to create this super product. So our cutting board, which was our first offering, community members said that they wanted something big that was double-sided, so they could serve and could cut on it. Some said that they wanted a little phone slot in it so they could look at recipes as they were cooking. It's just little tiny tweaks that are based on the experiences of real people that I think make our community feel very integrated into what we're doing across the board.”

Their product line now includes everything from pans to silicone straws, all “made by us, made with you.”

Tip #5: Engage with your community on your product offering — they’ll be excited to share their thoughts and even more invested and supportive once it’s released. 

While The Great British Baking Show does have some helpful tips for avoiding the dreaded “soggy bottom,” prior to Food52 there hadn’t been a source to answer all your cooking questions. But Food52’s success stems from going further than that. It stems from creating a space where home-cooking enthusiasts can get help, and offer it. They’ve built a number of avenues for people to connect and have supported community-led initiatives in the process. And most importantly, they’ve democratized the food content experience. It’s no longer tastemakers (pun intended) and readers — in Food52’s world, everyone is equal. Well, unless you have the winning layer cake recipe.   

🔥 For The Love of Newness

Bubble is a new teen-focused skincare brand “that helps you deal with the small stuff so you can put your best face forward.”

Arena is a new contender in the battle for your at-home gym. 

Ugly Drinks is getting festive with a limited-edition Candy Cane flavor, dropping Dec. 9th. Sign up here for early access. 

AC brand July is getting a headstart on summer with a towel collab with artist and illustrator Amber Vittoria

🔍 For The Love of the Details

If you’ve ever wondered what a Pogo Ball would look like as a hat, wonder no more...

Introducing The Iron Neck — the only product that lets you cosplay as Saturn while tethered to a wall. 

Oh, and it apparently also strengthens your neck.

I’m scared and so is this man — and you should be, too.

I mean, seriously, he’s terrified. Does it project images of giant spiders directly into your skull as well? 

Someone, please let this man off his head leash.

I don’t think I have to tell you that Joe Rogan is one of their celebrity endorsers. Was there anyone you could think of that would more likely to accept cash in exchange for headgear that specifically bulks up your neck?

Lest you think this product is *only* for men, women can be slapstick TikTok videos waiting to happen as well.

Just strap in and attach yourself to the nearest (and most likely to unexpectedly open) door and flash some Blue Steel to the left, now to the right, now to the left...

Thank you for being part of For The Love! 

A few more things...

Is there a topic you think I should cover? Or a funny ad I can dissect? I’d love to hear from you! You can email me at info@ajasinger.com, respond to this email, or drop it in the comments ⬇

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Written by Aja Singer, a brand and creative strategy consultant interested in all things startup, mission-driven, and community. Born in Canada. Based in Brooklyn. You can also find me on Instagram and Twitter.