Amanda Hesser, Food Maven, Woman Entrepreneur
Amanda grew up in Pennsylvania, outside of Scranton, in a family that was totally into food. After graduating from high school she made the move to Massachusetts to go to Bentley College. Although Amanda came from a family that loved food she never thought that it was something you could actually make a career out. But low and behold she listened to her heart and pursued a life in the food world that many people dream of. Her story is incredible and her latest project, Food52, is the perfect combination of everything she has done up to this point. Now to the story.
At Bentley, Amanda majored in finance and economics thinking like a true business person. She was on the tennis team briefly and in her junior and senior years opted out and got a job at Michaela's bakery in Cambridge. Michaela's still exists today under the name Rialto. She also worked at Panini another bakery in Cambridge baking bread, packing it up and delivering it around town. She loved it. Amanda had also had gone to the London School of Economics spending two summers in London and Europe where a glimpse into the food industry there certainly piqued her interest even more.
Around the time that college was wrapping up and she was thinking about interviewing for jobs she realized that food needed to be a part of her life. Quickly figuring out how to shift gears. At Michaela all the line cooks had worked in European restaurants and prodded her to go to Europe and start cooking. They had connections to help and she took them up on it and so her journey into the food world began.
Amanda got a bunch of different jobs in Switzerland, Germany, Italy and France. She had gone to Les Dames, a womans culinary institute that provides scholarships for women who are going into food. Amanda wrote up a proposal of what she wanted to do and convinced them to give her a scholarship. They did. WIth the money she went off to Europe and her first stop was Weingarten Germany where she worked in a bakery starting at 3am in the morning with 20 men. This lasted 3 months before she went to her next destination, Willisau Switzerland. This was a bread bakery and pastry shop. Pastry shop during the day and baking bread all night. Next stop was Rome, Italy at Forno Campo de Fiori where she lived in a convent and walked to work. This store was the inspiration behind Sullivan Street Bakery. Next stop Paris. In Paris she worked at Le Moulin de la Vierge another bread bakery. Amanda was living in the sixth, dreaming about bread after working the shift that got her home at 9am. Last stop was back to Maleo Italy at Albergo del Sole outside of Milan.
Amanda decided to return to France after the multiple three month baking stints. She figured she'd stay for six months and ended up staying for two years. In France, she was working for Anne Willan, the founder of Ecole de Cuisine LaVar, living in her house and helping her write cookbooks. Anne has trained many chefs and food writers. There was a gardener at Anne's house that Amanda became enamored with and it was there that she got the idea to write her first book, The Cook and The Gardener.
She came back to the states and lived in her parents house for about a year writing that book. She really felt as if she had landed her first subject and wanted to write about the gardener. It is a hybrid of recipes and stories which is a genre way before its time. Once the book was done, she needed to find a job. She had a boyfriend in Los Angeles and four days before she left for LA the NYTimes called her to interview her for the job of food editor. Figuring that job was a long job even after the interview she continued on to LA cobbling together freelance jobs until the NYTimes called back. They called, she went and that was the end of the boyfriend.
This was really the time that the dining section in the NYTimes was born. It was 1997. She wrote everything and anything putting in 750 stories over 7-8 years and then moved to the NYTimes magazine section. She had already been writing a section for the magazine called food diary for a year and a half which was how Cooking for Mr. Latte, Amanda's next book was written. She moved to food editor of the a new luxury food magazine called T Living staying for a couple of years. Her experience at the NYTimes was incredible yet when they offered buy-outs in 2008 she took it and went to work at a start-up in the Internet industry. This business had created a place where you could put everything in your life in one place. That was pre-cloud and way too early. They had also created a twitter like app that allowed you to track anything like hashable…all way too early. They were able to track anything on a chart so while people would watch the debates they could give immediate feedback. The compay ended up hooking up with NPR where they could track thousands of people watching the debates and they could visually see what was doing well and what wasn't. It was fun and different to be in a new industry and one that was growing yet not food related. It was 2008.
Spending some time in the tech industry got the juices flowing into what could she do on the web with food. During this entire time in the tech world Amanda and Merrill were cooking and writing the Essential New York TImes Cookbook. Many nights cooking started conversations about what was happening on line and wouldn't it be cool to crowd source recipes. They would do an experiment and create a contest for the best 52 recipes of the year by the week. They took this idea and sold the cookbook concept to Harper Studio. It was with with that money that they launched Food52. What they learned was it was the layer of curation that really worked. The passionate community really guided them. To me, I believe that is the key to creating smart businesses with active communities on the web. Listen to what your audience has to say, don't force them to do behave how you want them to.
Their deal with Harper Studio was for two books. Once they built Food52 they began to look for some angel investors to get involved. I was one of them. Now 400,000 uniques a month, deals with Whole Foods where they have created a series of sites running editorial for them, an iPad app that will have their recipes and food pickle, their first book coming out in October and an app for the holidays that will be a survival guide will be curated and crowd sourced as well.
Amanda has created a real business with the best home chefs across America under the umbrella of Food52. Go check it out. An engaged community with recipes that work (gasp!), products to buy, fun tidbits to read, just a fantastic site.