Food52 Broadens Its Ambitions By Bringing On Chief Commercial Officer Claire Chambers

Food52 Clarie Chambers

As people nest in their homes during the pandemic, Food52 has been serving them content – and products – that match their interests.

During the pandemic, sales in Food52’s shop have risen 175% year over year. Unique visitors doubled in May.

But the pandemic also changed Food52’s own ambitions to grow its brand.

After receiving an $83 million majority investment from The Chernin Group last fall, the hybrid publisher and commerce platform charted plans for expansion. New business ideas include offline retail, live events, content distribution, brand licensing and partnerships.

To bring these ideas to fruition, Food52 hired Claire Chambers as its first chief commercial officer. She oversees Food52’s two revenue lines, commerce (75% of its business) and media (25% of its business), as well as anything else the brand cooks up.

Chambers talked to AdExchanger from her farmhouse in the Hudson Valley, where she’s been holing up with her two kids during the pandemic.

AdExchanger: You co-founded the cult lingerie and retail brand Journelle and then worked for Walmart eCommerce as VP and GM of their home division. Why the two extremes?

CLAIRE CHAMBERS: I spent the good part of a decade in the trenches as a founder and CEO. When I sold Journelle, I was intrigued with what was playing out in the retail world. I joined Walmart eCommerce because I was interested in getting a seat at the table running a business at scale, and to transform a business that had some sticky issues and needed to be led into the future.

How does your experience as a founder play into the role you’re taking on now?

When I started talking to [Food52 co-founders] Amanda [Hesser] and Merrill [Stubbs], we instantly connected over the challenges of being founders – challenges they had in the past, or challenges I was empathetic to that I had never had at Journelle but knew I would have faced.

With Journelle, I felt like I learned more and more in hindsight. I could look back and say, “Wow, I wish I could have done that differently.” I missed the scrappiness of being in a smaller company. And I’d also been a fan of Food52 for a long time.

The Chernin Group made an $83 million majority investment in Food52 in the fall. What will that allow you to do?

Everything is on the table. Food52 is a really unique business model that there isn’t a road map for. We are looking to grow expansively and pioneer a new path forward.

If Food52’s business right now is 75% commerce and 25% ads, what new revenue lines do you plan to add?

I started the year being really excited about offline retail. I’m a big believer in it for Food52 – but now is not the time to do stores or live events, where we integrate brand or shop partners into our ecosystem. That’s on hold.

Our focus right now is on content and experience. We are finding ways to broaden our reach. Earlier this year we launched a home sub-brand, and others may follow as we look at expanding beyond food. We’re also expanding our content formats and channels – more video, podcasts – which have reinforced the vision of the company, which is to serve more home cooks.

So given the environment right now, is the focus more on building the brand than building the business?

Not to sound trite, but when you build the brand you build the business. It’s a mutually reinforcing cycle. On the commerce side, we’re seeing rapid growth, and part of that is because people are staying at home and cooking more. But it’s also because we are staying ahead of what people are looking for.

What’s it been like to start a new job in the midst of the pandemic? 

I had this whole vision of how I wanted to start this job and the energy and perspective I wanted to bring – and of course I started in April, and I’ve been 100% remote. Most of the team I have never met in person. But the pandemic has had such a silver lining for us, not just in terms of audience and sales, but because it feels like our mission has never been more important. Our audience is really dialed in right now. We’re going back to basics, looking at microtrends for our audience and opportunities for us to listen and communicate with them about what they need in this moment.

How do you look at the two different business models at play – media and commerce – in building Food52’s business?

The way commerce is being played today is very much a game of scale. Margins are thin. The way you make it all work is by balancing out the long tail, and selling some items at a higher margin and a lot of items at a lower margin. My philosophy is not to go head to head with the Amazons of the world.

I believe that content, commerce and community add up to more than the sum of their parts. We can educate consumers about these makers and tell their story in a way that’s authentic and eye-opening to consumers. These sticky, rich experiences are not something you see on Amazon.

The pandemic has stressed many businesses in the short term. How is that affecting your approach?

I can’t think of a time in my adult life that there’s been more business volatility. It’s made forecasting very difficult. As we look forward to the summer, fall, winter, it’s hard for me to say what’s coming. Our brand partners are riding in a choppy ocean and figuring out how to navigate it and what they want to commit to for Q4. We’ve had to be really nimble to their needs and focus on building long-term relationships with brands, cognizant that we don’t know how Q3 or Q4 will play out.

What about commerce issues in the short term?

The business has been positively affected. But going into the fall, there are potential distractions – the election and grappling with outbreaks of the virus. We’re having to be more flexible than usual. It’s like building a business on quicksand.

Does having one person run both media and commerce make for better business alignment?

There have already been clear advantages. In places where the business used to debate whether a client was a shop partner or an advertising partner, we’re aligning behind a single vision. It’s easier to do that when you have a shared commercialization strategy. It will be important to make sure we have deep expertise on the brand partnerships side of the business, and we’re fortunate there to have investors with deep experience.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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