Ecommerce Food for Thought

How Food52 built a community that creates scalable opportunities in the ecommerce world.

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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-focused content and eCommerce platform that reaches more than 24 million people who have bought into the idea Hesser preaches. But no platform builds itself, and in the early days, Hesser and her co-founder had to find innovative ways to build the community and grow Food52 into what they dreamed it could be. Hesser knew that they needed to not only build a place where people could gather, they needed to build a platform where people felt a real sense of ownership in the community being created.

“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,” Hesser says.”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. 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. And that was the way that we built community and we created lots of ways for people to get involved.”

Whether you wanted to provide recipes, test recipes, vote on contests, contribute ideas, send in photographs or anything else, Hesser and her team created many different opportunities that functioned as entry points for all different kinds of users.

“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,” Hesser says. “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.”

With the community growing steadily, Hesser and her team wanted to expand their offerings. They made the move to the world of eCommerce and started drop-shipping products from various vendors. All the while, the Food52 team was gathering insights into the trends they were seeing to eventually use in their own line of products, which started out with a simple cutting board.

“When we went to [start our product line], it made total sense for us to actually call on our community for their input on the products,” Hesser says. “And not just in a shallow way, but a really deep and extensive way. We had the data on what people were shopping for [and] what was selling well on our site….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.”

Launching the Five Two product line was always the plan for the platform, and Hesser says that actually pulling the trigger really came down to just jumping in headfirst.

Throughout the process, Hesser was constantly learning and evaluating what her community wanted. She says that she and her co-founder always knew that food and your personal space are important to everyday happiness, and offering products to improve those aspects of their users’ lives was important to the growth of Food52. And while they had success when they launched the line in 2018, the COVID-19 crisis really drove home that their instincts in starting this platform were correct.

“What we’ve come away from this having learned was a couple of things,” Hesser says of the challenges of 2020. “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 — that’s really what we’ve been pushing as a brand since day one. We were building this company knowing that there was a growing understanding of that. I think COVID really just rapidly accelerated people’s understanding across our entire culture 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.”

As we all continue to move through uncertain times, Hesser is proud to have built such a plugged-in and helpful community. They lean on each other, and Hesser and her team will continue to lean on that community as well to keep scaling Food52 into its next big thing.

To hear more from Hesser, check out her episode of Up Next in Commerce.

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