When Amanda Hesser, co-founder of the e-commerce and community site Food52, was a young girl, she learned just how hard it could be to own a business. Her parents had bought a car dealership in their hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and kept it going while the oil shocks of the 1970s made the going rough. "They had no money," says Hesser. "They risked everything for it."
Then, when she was 8, the dealership burned to the ground. "At the time, it was one of the biggest fires [ever] in Scranton," she recalls. "The problem with a fire in a car dealership," she says dryly, "is that there's a lot of gasoline."
The next day, with the stench of burnt tires hanging in the air, her dad set up a trailer across the street from the smoldering building so he could sell the cars that hadn't been destroyed. "He wanted to let people know this wasn't going to get him down," Hesser says.
If resilience is the hallmark of a founder, Hesser has clearly inherited her father's trait. Throughout her career, she's taken leaps--baker and chef to top food writer to--well into her 30s--entrepreneur. She launched her second startup, Food52, in late 2009, with co-founder Merrill Stubbs. Originally an online destination for home cooks to connect and share recipes, it's since evolved into a hub for the culinary-inclined--from salami subscriptions to shellfish forks to a wedding registry. The site made its name early on by hosting a year's worth of weekly recipe contests--hence the name. The winners were ultimately published in a crowdsourced cookbook.
Today Food52 has--wait for it--52 employees (and no, that's not by design). Company revenue hit $6.2 million in 2014, and its three-year revenue growth of 890 percent only narrowly missed making last year's Inc. 500 (it clocked in at No. 521). Up next: the app (Not)Recipes, intended for more experienced cooks, through which users will upload food pics onto a platform that makes them searchable by ingredients listed in users' captions.
Though Hesser seems like she was always destined to be an entrepreneur, she first won notice as a writer. After graduating from college, keenly interested in food, she decided to spend time studying cooking in Europe. But she was a broke student, her family's means were modest, and, she recalls, back then "no one gave scholarships" for such things. A problem? Not for her. "I just created a plan for a scholarship, found a culinary organization"--Les Dames d'Escoffier--"and pitched them on funding me to go to Europe." It worked. There she learned baking in Rome at Forno Campo de' Fiori and in Paris at the landmark boulangerie Le Moulin de la Vierge. In France, she worked with the noted food writer Anne Willan, a contemporary of Julia Child's and the founder of the prestigious cooking school Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne. When she was 27, she published her first book, about Willan's gardener.
A decade or so after her time in Europe, Hesser was comfortably ensconced in New York City, where she built an enviable career as a top food writer at The New York Times and a New York Times Magazine columnist with several books under her belt. Then, in 2008, she decided to take a buyout from the Times to scratch an old itch. Or, as she told Mediabistro at the time, "I figured, well, my husband and I have a mortgage to pay, kids to feed, and the economy is tanking--it's the perfect time to start a company!"
Hesser had always had an interest in recording life and its various histories, which led her to her first startup idea. "My first four books iterated on this," she explains. "The Cook and the Gardener tracks a year in a garden. Cooking for Mr. Latte follows the timeline of a courtship. Eat, Memory--well, enough said." At the time, Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr were just starting to explode. She believed there was a need for a single platform that could pull together people's fragmented digital histories. She enlisted two technical co-founders to build Seawinkle, a bid to "distill your digital life into a visual format." But ultimately, Hesser and her co-founders decided Seawinkle wasn't seaworthy. Unsuccessful meetings with potential investors "forced us to ask ourselves hard questions: whether this was a business, and whether we were the right people to build it." They weren't. So they shook hands and walked away from the project.
But she had another idea, this one rooted in what she knew best. In September 2009, she and Stubbs, whom she had met and befriended while working on a recipe book for the Times--launched Food52. Asked about choosing a co-founder who shares many of her editorial and culinary skills--sometimes a dangerous gambit--Hesser says she's guided by the belief that "personal affinity matters way more than skill sets."
The two quickly discovered how important that affinity would be. In the summer of 2010, the co-founders were dining at Brooklyn's Roberta's, "crying over our pizza." They were running out of cash, had yet to pay themselves, and couldn't get investors to buy in on their idea or them. "We were like, 'Do we have to stop this? Are we going to shut this down?'" Hesser recalls. But they didn't. How did they get through it? "Grit," Hesser shoots back. "You have to have the 'this can't fail' feeling." They bought themselves time by borrowing money from Stubbs's mom and Hesser's husband (both have been paid back, Hesser reports). Funding rounds totaling $9 million followed, from a range of investors that included Gary Vaynerchuk and Food Network parent company Scripps Networks Interactive.
Hesser's path has taken her a long way from Scranton. Her father passed away more than 20 years ago, and today, her older brother runs the family company, Tom Hesser Motors, which has grown into several car dealerships. But what she saw growing up stays with her still. "Founders often say--myself included--'I spend my days putting out fires,'" she says. "They're just not ones that are quite that big."