Forget Recipes, Food52 Wants to Crowdsource Cooking Itself

Photograph by David Matheson/Gallery Stock

When Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs founded Food52 in 2009, they were looking for a way to create the world’s first crowdsourced cookbook. After 52 weeks (hence the name) of online recipe contests, they had the 140 dishes needed for their cookbook, but they also discovered they had inadvertently created a community of passionate home and professional cooks, all willing to share their recipes and their culinary wisdom.

Since then, Food52 has become a premier destination for community-vetted recipes online, but its founders have grown even more ambitious. Hesser and Stubbs want to crowdsource how we actually cook.

In a recent interview with GigaOM, Hesser laid out how Food52 plans to become a central clearinghouse for cooking questions and food knowledge throughout the Web—a sort of Quora or Yahoo! Answers for food. The idea is that anytime a cook has a question about a specific recipe, technique, or general cooking topic, he or she would be able to ask that question from any cooking website—or from a mobile app or social media site—and get an answer within minutes.

Food52 has already laid out the groundwork with a service called Hotline, which Hesser describes as a Butterball Turkey Talk-Line for any food question. Cooks can ask their questions from Food52’s website, via Twitter, through its iPhone app, or in its iPad cookbook, the Holiday Recipe & Survival Guide. Anyone can respond, as well as agree or disagree with someone else’s answer, but most of the responses come from Food52’s core membership of 50,000 highly active professional and home cooks (who account for about 10 percent of its 500,000 monthly unique visitors).

“Right now it’s a very solid proof of concept within our world, but you can imagine how powerful this could be if we integrated it with other sites,” Hesser said. “We want to distribute what we do around the Web. We’re building a widget that can be embedded in food blogs and sites that would expand our reach to a much wider audience.”

Whole Foods Market is already experimenting with the platform, incorporating Hotline into a series of local food portals it’s launching across the country, rebranding the service as FoodPickle. Food52 isn’t working with any other companies or sites just yet. First, Hesser said, it needs to refine and scale its platform.

Currently, Food52 is only getting about 20 to 40 questions per day—though during the holidays volumes increase dramatically—a number that’s handled easily by its membership and moderated by the startup’s small staff of eight. In order to support what it eventually hopes will be thousands of questions per day, Food52 is developing an automated system for streamlining the Q&A and process, identifying which questions pertain to a particular field of cookery and pushing those queries to the relevant experts among its members. For instance, a question about a sourdough bread recipe would go not only into the overall question feed, but would also be pushed automatically to the recipe’s author and Food52’s baking cognoscente.

Ultimately, Hesser said, Food 52 wants to get every query answered in as close to real time as possible, because people most often have cooking questions while they’re actually cooking. A 20-minute response lag to the question “How do I know when my quiche is done?” doesn’t do you much good if your quiche is already burning.

“Over the Christmas holidays we saved a lot of meals,” Hesser said, but she added that Food52 can do better. “One challenge for us is to get that critical mass of activity necessary to get questions answered in less than five minutes.”

Next, Food52 is trying to refine how questions are asked. While users can submit general Hotline queries via its Web and app tools, the company is embedding code into its recipes pages that allows customers to ask questions about specific ingredients, techniques, or steps described within those recipes. The engine then loads that relevant information into the posted question itself, making it easier for the site’s members to provide specific answers. Hesser said Food52 will eventually expand those capabilities to its partners.

Food52 is also building a database of questions and highly rated answers, giving users instant access to a repository of stored knowledge about particular recipes or techniques. The more people use Hotline, the smarter it becomes, Hesser said. And finally, the startup is looking to take advantage of its higher-profile members to provide both authority and nuance to some of the more complex queries fielded by the site. Food52 has designated a group of 10 famous chefs, food writers, and cookbook authors such as Michael Ruhlman and Dorie Greenspan as “MVPs.”

“There are a lot of fantastic food questions out there, but some of these questions require experience to answer,” said Hesser, who is no slouch herself (she authored The Essential New York Times Cookbook). “A lot of questions don’t have simple fact-based answers. … The idea isn’t that what [the MVPs] have to say is necessarily more important than what others have to say, but we do want to add their knowledge to the conversation.”

Hesser didn’t reveal any details about the business model behind the company’s expansion across the Web, though she did say the plan isn’t to provide a white-label service to other food brands. The New York-based startup hopes to make Hotline its own pervading presence, drawing more people into the Food52 universe.

But Food52 may face some competition. In a recent conversation, Food Network’s senior vice president of online brands, Bob Madden, said the network is looking to make some big moves in its digital content strategy, including a possible cooking Q&A service of its own.

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