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Nov. 25, 2015, 11:03 a.m.
Business Models

America’s Test Kitchen, “the Consumer Reports of cooking,” wants to grow to new platforms

Many home cooks, when they think of Cook’s Illustrated, think of the bow-tied, bespectacled Christopher Kimball, who founded the magazine in its current form in 1993 and went on to help build it into America’s Test Kitchen, a cooking empire with a public television show, a radio show, spinoff magazines, and hundreds of print cookbooks. It’s a brand that rode no-nonsense and nothing-fancy to an estimated $50 million-plus in revenue by 2012, and it’s had impact far beyond its 2,500-square-foot test kitchen in Brookline, Massachusetts: Mark Bittman, Pam Anderson, and J. Kenzi López-Alt all worked at Cook’s Illustrated, for instance, before becoming bestselling cookbook authors in their own right. In today’s explainer-laden Internet cooking culture, the influence of America’s Test Kitchen is clear.

cook's countrySo many fans were shocked last week to learn that Kimball and Boston Common Press (the privately held company that owns America’s Test Kitchen, Cook’s Illustrated, and Cook’s Country) had failed to reach a new contract. Kimball will continue to host his PBS shows, America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country, at least through 2016, and will also remain the host of the weekly public radio show America’s Test Kitchen Radio. And he told Current that, in January, he plans to announce another project “very focused on public media.”

David Nussbaum was hired as the first-ever CEO of Boston Common Press in September. Before that, he was the CEO and publisher of F+W, a New York–based company that produces books, magazines, and digital products in niche verticals like arts and crafts and coin-collecting (it owns Writer’s Digest and Popular Woodworking magazines, among others). Nussbaum has been lauded in the publishing community for successfully tapping specific communities and for growing F+W’s e-commerce business from $6 million in 2008 to an expected $65 million in 2015.

I spoke with Nussbaum, who started his new job on October 14 and is alternating weeks between his home in New York City and in Boston, about the changes he wants to make at America’s Test Kitchen, what the company’s paywall strategy will look like going forward, and more. Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.

Laura Owen: F+W and America’s Test Kitchen are pretty different companies. What attracted you to the position?

David Nussbaum: There’s very little overlap. F+W’s cookbook business is a very, very small percentage of its revenues, and it’s also not a cooking community in terms of websites, databases, events, and things like that. The way America’s Test Kitchen is similar to F+W is that it’s an enthusiast community. So the overlap is small, but the experience and education that I got at F+W is very valuable.

What attracted me, really, was a number of things. One was the opportunity to focus on one very large market instead of several smaller markets. That really gives me a chance to get deep into one community. Second, America’s Test Kitchen is a legendary brand with legendary content, so that’s quite attractive to me. Third, it’s a privately held company, and I’ve gotten to know the owners very well, including Chris Kimball, by the way, and I like them all and respect them all.

When you add up all of those things, it seemed like a very attractive opportunity for me. I’m still a stockholder at F+W and I still love everybody over there, so it wasn’t so much that I was leaving F+W, but going to ATK.

Owen: This is the first time Boston Common Press has had a CEO. Why was it time for that position?

Nussbaum: Obviously this is a better question for the owners, but the owners of the business decided that they don’t want to sell the business, ever. They want to hold it for a long time and pass it along to their heirs, and so they felt that they needed an experienced media executive to lead the business into the next decade or so, at least. That’s one reason.

The second reason is that the existing senior management there is terrific, but they wanted a media executive that has deep digital experience, and my specialty going back to my Penton days has been helping traditional media companies expand more aggressively into digital arenas.

Owen: So here’s the obligatory Chris Kimball question. I know that he’ll still have some involvement, but he’s seen as the face of the company. Is that a concern going forward?

Nussbaum: I think it’s important for everybody to note that we just announced a venture with Chris to continue as host of ATK Radio as host. Chris and his family also maintain a significant share, although a minority share, ownership of the business. Chris and ATK’s worlds are entwined. So we care about his future, he cares about ours. We’ll continue to discuss ways to work together. A lot of the media presented it initially as a zero-sum game, which it’s not. It’s just a bit of a different path.

Owen: What are some of the digital challenges that you particularly want to address?

Nussbaum: I wouldn’t call them challenges, I’d call them opportunities. It’s a pristine brand, it’s very popular, the content’s phenomenal, they have a very deep backlist of both physical content and video content, and they’re very well-known. So I think it’s opportunities for more growth, rather than challenges.

While still nurturing and focusing on the PBS network, we’d like to move to other platforms, particularly as we see the changes in how people consume television. We are on Netflix and Amazon Prime, but we think there are many other opportunities to expand that platform.

We’d like to launch new shows, whether they’re online-only video channels or different types of broadcast. We see a big opportunity there.

When you go online and look at one of our recipes on video, we give you a list of what you need to make the recipe. Now, wouldn’t it be great if you could click on the paprika and have that delivered to you? Or click on the whole package of ingredients and have it delivered to you? There are lots of interesting new ways to look at that while still honoring the very core of the business, which is independence — we’re kind of the Consumer Reports of the cooking field, and we’ll continue to honor that. But we’d like to bring this kind of content to more viewers and expanded demographics, and also facilitate the making of the recipes so that it’s a bit easier for our consumers.

Owen: Let’s talk about paywall strategy. You guys have a very strong paywall; it’s not easy to get your content without paying for it. At the same time, the paywall strategy is a little complicated. You can buy a subscription to all three sites now [for $69.95 a year], but there are still separate paid tablet editions, for instance, and it can be confusing.

Nussbaum: Before I got here, they were in the process of relaunching the sites. The first one, Cook’s Illustrated, has been relaunched. Now there’s a bit of content before the paywall, like equipment reviews and daily recipes. Cook’s Illustrated’s site is also mobile-friendly. The next site to relaunch will be the America’s Test Kitchen site, and then Cook’s Country. So we’re already in that process of giving a little bit of content before the paywall, for SEO and for traffic-building reasons and also to entice somebody to buy.

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 5.19.31 PM

We’re going to continue having for-pay sites, but we’re putting a little bit of free content ahead of that, and we’re making the sites mobile-ready. That strategy preceded me, and it’s exactly the right strategy.

Owen: Have you thought about having links shared through social leading to free pages, for instance?

Nussbaum: Yeah. I think utilizing social more aggressively is a very big part of the roadmap. Because the company’s owners think longterm, they are very willing to invest deeply in the business. The company has 180 people right now, and we have budget to hire 25 new people in 2016, with almost all of the positions in digital and in content. A couple of those positions are social-focused executives. We also just signed an agreement to spend seven figures on building out CRM to help us get to know our customers better and do better at making targeted offers to them. The company is really very forward-thinking, and because it’s privately held, and because their view is a 40-year view, the owners are willing to invest significantly in building.

Owen: I know you said you’re launching this initiative to learn more about your customers, but I’m assuming you already have some information about them. How much overlap do you see between the digital subscribers and buyers of the print products?

Nussbaum: They tend to be different. I don’t think there’s a huge crossover. We do have a lot of information, we just want to get better at it. There are plenty of customers who do both, but it’s certainly not the majority.

Owen: Food videos are one of the top video categories on Facebook. Can you talk about specific video and mobile strategies you’re working on?

Nussbaum: We have huge amounts of content on YouTube, but until now, other than getting the content up, we haven’t done a lot of strategic thinking about the best way to manage, market, and organize on YouTube. That’s going to be an important initiative in 2016 and 2017.

It’s the same thing with Facebook: We have a lot of Facebook followers, but we can do a better job of both attracting Facebook followers, interfacing with them, and treating them in a different way so that they feel special. There’s a lot that’s going on, but I just finished my fifth week, so if you and I talk again in six months, I think you’d get much more specific answers to some of these things. I’m still in that learning phase.

Owen: In the past I might have asked you about your competition from other print cookbooks, or from sites like AllRecipes.com. But now there are these more serious home cooking sites like Serious Eats and Food52. How do you see your competition?

Nussbaum: America’s Test Kitchen is so very different. We really do view ourselves as the Consumer Reports of the recipe and cooking field. We take no advertising. The others that you mentioned are heavily advertising-based, so that’s one major way we’re different. Second, we test each recipe upwards of 50 times. Third, the rough average we spend on our recipe development is $10,000 per recipe, and I guarantee you there’s no competitor that’s even close to that. Fourth, we think about the quality of the food, the quality of the recipe, the ease for the home cook — everything we do is something you can do at home. I think those are the big differentiators.

Owen: I told my mother-in-law that I’d bring a pie to Thanksgiving and she was like, “Oh, chocolate cream?” And I was like, um, sure! So I’m assuming Cook’s Illustrated has a recipe.

Nussbaum: A really good one, I guarantee it.

Photo of a roast turkey by Annie used under a creative commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 25, 2015, 11:03 a.m.
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