In  Food52's Manhattan office, a clean and cozy space above Seventh Avenue that feels more dream apartment than startup headquarters, Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs are talking about--what else?--food. I've just told them I'm headed to the small New York town of Hudson, nearly three hours north of Manhattan, later tonight. Now they're in the midst of rattling off restaurants in the town, population 6,700, that are among their favorites. 

"Incredible southeast Asian food--I love their baos," Hesser gushes about one eatery. "They use a lot of local ingredients. You'll probably need a reservation."

"It's a great brunch spot," Stubbs says of a motorcycle-shop-slash-cafe. "Really good waffles and breakfast sandwiches." (I would end up confirming this.) 

While we talk, smells waft over us: coffee, cinnamon, pine. ​Hesser and Stubbs offer me a tray of snacks made in the kitchen a few feet away. I try a pumpkin walnut cake and an olive oil pound cake, both recipes submitted by readers of Food52's website. 

Eventually, we get to the reason I'm here: a cutting board. Stubbs pulls a thick wood board out of a burlap sack tied closed with string. At a glance, it looks pretty standard issue. Yet this board is the product of feedback from 10,000 people. After five years selling cooking supplies and dinnerware on behalf of third-party vendors (and taking a portion of each sale), Food52 is launching its first direct-to-consumer product line. Each item was designed using feedback from the startup's considerable online community of foodies and casual and professional chefs. The board, the first product on the slate, goes on sale Tuesday. 

The co-founders wanted to get it exactly right. 

"We have this huge community of people willing to tell us what they want," Hesser says. "We felt like there was an opportunity to put them in the design chair and to involve them from the beginning." 

So what looks like an average wooden cutting board has elements meant to make as many people happy possible: deep juice grooves, a spout to collect and pour out said juices, beveled edges for easy pickup, a slot for holding a phone displaying a recipe. As per user feedback, it's responsibly sourced and manufactured (on a family farm in Vermont), durable (made of firm maple), and, Hesser says, "reasonably accessible," though its $99 tag strikes this non-chef as high.

The Five Two line, as it's known, has 20 products in its blueprint. It will include things like glassware, dinnerware, mixing bowls, and dish towels, with a new offering being released every few weeks. 

So why debut with a cutting board?

"We wanted to start with something that's at the heart of what we do," Stubbs says. Barely a beat passes, and Hesser adds, "And a product that we know sells well."

This happens several times throughout our conversation: The two effortlessly add to--or complete--each other's thoughts. It would seem rehearsed if it didn't sound so natural. The pair, who met and became friends while both were food writers for The New York Times in the mid-2000s, decided in 2009 to start their own company. 

"We felt there was nowhere online that we wanted to hang out," Stubbs says. "We had a theory that if there was this platform where food lovers could connect, it would make for a good business opportunity." 

The pair pitched publishers on the idea of cookbooks crowdsourced online. They earned two book deals, then used the $100,000 in advances to fund and launch Food52. The initial concept was to hold weekly recipe contests (hence the name), with the winning submissions making it into the book.

About a year in, the co-founders were able to secure a $750,000 seed round. They then launched an online shop where makers could sell their goods to the site's growing community of food and cooking fanatics. The store now earns about 70 percent of Food52's revenue, which totaled $22.7 million in 2017 and earned the company the No. 1,660 slot on Inc.'s list of the fastest growing private companies in the U.S. (The rest comes from on-site advertising; the site reaches an audience of around 13 million people per month.)

With the direct-to-consumer line, the co-founders think they have a way to give customers exactly what they want. They considered leaning on the years of sales data they'd collected, but opted to involve their users. "These are things that no one has given the community input into," says Hesser.

The feedback process has varied from item to item. For its wooden spoons, the company asked users to submit photos of their favorites from home, along with brief descriptions about what makes them particularly great. (One design in prototype is angled so it can easily scrape the inside of a bowl or jar.) For the mixing bowls, the team presented various styles and sizes and had users vote on which they liked best.

Most of the designs relied on good old-fashioned surveys, with a team of staffers cataloging the results and noting what aspects users seemed most passionate about. (When it came to dish towels, one user asked to make sure they weren't merely attractive but were actually absorbent, "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.")

Of course, crowdsourced products have existed for some time. Companies like Lay's and Lego have held contests to let customers decide their new offerings. Crowdfunding sites Kickstarter and Indiegogo have become prime locations for inventors to collect not just capital, but feedback on design features. 

Food52 is taking things a step further, building its entire product offering on the feedback of its users. It's a gamble, but the co-founders are confident that it will pay off. The startup will be up against other online direct-to-consumer kitchenware brands that have sprung up in recent years, like Made in Cookware, Field Company, and Misen.

"People are looking for deeper connections with their brands," Stubbs says, citing the company's high engagement on platforms like Instagram. Hesser builds on her thought. "Very few companies have paid this much attention to their communities when it comes to design. We think we can change things."

Published on: Oct 16, 2018