If you have ever wondered how some food bloggers manage to run not one but two food blogs at once, and what all this requires behind the scenes, you are not going to want to miss today’s episode. I sat down with Christine Pittman, of Cook the Story and The Cookful, to discuss lessons learned from running two blogs, the team behind this, and her journey on this incredible feat. Plus, Christine tells us about her experience working with us on website design for her two very unique blogs.
So, could you start by just giving us an overview of what your two blogs are and what they’re all about?
So Cook the Story is my personal food blog that I started back in 2010. It is homemade, healthy, easy-ish recipes. There’s lots of basic tutorials and how-to kinds of things on there. It’s things people search for; things people want to make. Then, The Cookful I launched in 2015 and that one is contributor based. So from the beginning, I wanted to have other bloggers or recipe developers contributing recipes. What we do is we pick a topic like basil, or stuffed peppers, or popcorn, and we just do a whole bunch of recipes and tutorials all focused on that topic.
So let’s talk about The Cookful for a second. So how did you decide to use contributors? How did you decide that you wanted to kind of go all in on these topics and sort of have these collections of recipes.
That was around 2013 or 2014. On Cook the Story, I was noticing that certain types of posts were doing better in my analytics than others. I had been going to different conferences and things and they were talking about interlinking your content. It occurred to me that having a site that was purposely building everything around a topic like that, and trying to interlink, and have that full-fledged expert approach on each topic, would probably do really well.
Originally, I wanted to have a whole bunch of different websites, and I was going to have a whole site on stuffed peppers, a whole site on fish and a whole site on soup, because those were the three things that were doing the best on my site then. It was through talking with people that were just like you can’t possibly manage that many blogs, that the idea got refined into one site that had these different topics as part of it. Then in terms of using contributors, I knew I wanted a second site. I knew I wanted it to be more well defined and strategic in a way that Cook the Story hadn’t been.
But I also knew that I couldn’t do it all myself, so I wanted contributors. At that time, people were doing a lot of sponsored posts for brands in the food blogging world. I wanted an easy way, for bloggers to make a little bit of money: like you can just do this recipe for my site, and not have to do all the social media. Not have to post something on your blog and not have to tell all your friends and family about it. It could just be this contained little exchange. So that’s how that all came about.
So what has been the hardest part of that process? Because as you’re talking about it, I’m thinking like you almost have to have a team for each of these topics. I feel like that could be very overwhelming to manage. So, what’s the hardest part of managing all those people that are kind of coming together to support The Cookful?
Yes, that has been a huge evolution and it’s been part of my own personal and business growth in project management and organization. Heather McCurdy was my business manager, and she really brought so much organization and thoughtfulness into how to make it easy for me and for the contributors. But we did a bunch of different things, early on, we were emailing people and just having them pitch ideas to us. That was really, really time consuming and really overwhelming. Then we started choosing the recipes first, and we had like a signup genius, and people would have to first come first serve sign up for them.
We have moved away from having a whole bunch of different contributors on each topic and instead, we’re looking for one person to do each topic. So, we just had Emily Pastor do a series on lamb, and Kathy Hester has a series on legumes and the Instant Pot that just went up. We did one on salmon, and Jill Silverman Hoff is the cookbook author behind that one. So instead of having a whole bunch of different people on each topic, now we’re choosing one expert, who we hope is really an expert on that topic, and that one person is doing it. I think that’s easier because it’s one person out of a whole bunch, but it also brings some really nice consistency to things. So now with one person, they’re able to be coherent and there is a consistency through the series.
I love hearing that you have these ideas, but you’re like, “That’s not my zone and so I’m going to put it on pause, and maybe I’ll do it someday. But right now, it’s not the time for that.” So, I love that. I think that’s really cool. I had never heard of anyone doing that type of process before or that style of blogging before, or at least not done it very successfully. So I think it’s really unique and it’s cool to hear how you use contributors. One final question on The Cookful, is there a way that people, if they are hearing this, and they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I would love to do that!” Do you have people reach out to you? Do you primarily pitch other people? Like what is that process like for you, just so people are kind of aware of how you do that?
We have been reaching out to people and using sort of our own connections. So, people who I already know and trust, or have worked with, and that’s what we’ve been doing. But I am absolutely open to people pitching us and yes, I think it’s the way that you design the site. The way that we’re kind of going is we want to be promoting the contributor as much as they are, so it’s like mutually beneficial. So, we really like it if they have cookbooks, or something that we can be helping them promote. It’s hard to promote a blog but we do a little bit of linking. If somebody contributes for us, they can link three or four times to their content and so that’s great for that Google juice stuff. But it’s not as easy to promote as it is like physical products or other things that they have. So, I think that we’re looking for people who have that type of product to offer.
So, let’s shift a little bit and let’s talk about Cook the Story, the original food blog for you. I think there’s a lot of things that The Cookful kind of did differently by default. But can you talk about some of the ways that you’ve done things differently for Cook the Story, maybe over the years, or things that you feel like are a little bit different for you than maybe some other food bloggers and what they do.
I convinced myself early on that it wasn’t cynical to use my statistics to figure out what my content should be. If it’s doing well on the stats, that means people actually want this, so I’m serving my readers. When I convinced myself that it was okay to do that and started doing it and then saw the results from it, like it’s just crazy. My top post on Cook the Story, back then was probably how to cook fish from frozen. So we started doing how to cook a whole bunch of other stuff from frozen. We did how to cook shrimp from frozen, how to cook chicken breast from frozen, how to cook a whole chicken from frozen; those are all in my top 10 all the time now. So people do want that information, people are googling for that all the time and so that is what’s there. But yes, I just started doing that early on and that’s what it has evolved into. I look at my stats and I figure out content based on that, and not all of it, but like 50% is stuff that I’m noticing is rising in the stats. I’ve actually been working with a friend of mine who’s a computer programmer statistician, to look at the stats and look for anomalies.
So another thing that you have for Cook the Story is you also have a podcast. Can you talk a little bit about that side of the business and what that has done for your business and maybe why you’ve decided to start it?
Yes, so the podcast is called Time Management Insider, the initials are TMI. So it’s too much information about meal planning and time management for inside the home. I really wanted to talk more about the meal planning and the strategies and so that’s what that podcast is. What it has done for my business, you know it’s another one of these calling card like things. I get invited to be on TV or other podcasts or things and it’s something else people can say about me. It’s another way that people can interact with me and find me. So, it’s been a year now and now we have about 1,000 people listening a month. It’s not groundbreakingly huge. I interview everyday people about their meal planning struggles and what’s going on in their homes. I get to really connect with these people, and especially when it ends up being bloggers or cookbook authors.
It feels almost like my early blogging days, when I would go to conferences and meet people and connect and we’d share those experiences. I even actually had a weekly Google Hangout with Katie Jasiewicz from Katie’s Cucina and we would interview other bloggers and we met a whole bunch of bloggers doing these Google Hangouts. Then we went to conferences, and everybody knew who I was, and that’s not a bad thing. So I think that even if nobody’s really listening, what I’m doing in those interviews is really beneficial to me and others. Also, that’s often how I end up finding contributors for The Cookful.
So, you’re talking to one person a week, and you’re kind of getting to know them. But I think what you’ve probably been able to do is extrapolate, “Well, this person is struggling with this part and so there’s other people who are struggling with that too.” You’ve created this community around these struggles being normal and the whole, “You’re not the only one who struggles with XYZ when it comes to meal planning or time management.” I think that’s really cool that you’ve been able to do that, and I would imagine, it’s probably helped you with content ideas, and just kind of getting information. I mean, for a lot of food bloggers, we’re never short on ideas. But you probably have a better insight and pulse into ideas that will do well and will matter to your people and I think that’s really cool.
Yes, that’s happening and where that’s happening the most, and it’s such a great reminder, is I do a meal plan at the end of each episode. I just run through a five day dinner meal plan, and then that gets posted on the blog with a grocery list and tips for pulling that week together. I have to make that meal plan and I need to find recipes on my site that actually work for a weeknight for people, and that will work together and coordinate and use some of the same ingredients. But then also, in doing that, I know this isn’t about the podcast, it’s about like the meal plan part. But having to go and look at them and make grocery lists from them, is getting me to realize the inconsistencies on the site. So, it’s been good. It’s forcing me to reflect on the content on the site in a more holistic way.
We’re going to talk about your team and how that is structured. I know it has changed a good bit recently. So maybe let’s go from a top level view, will you just kind of give everybody an overview. I mean you don’t have to go into specific positions and all of that. But what does your team look like or where did it start? Obviously, it started with just you and then fast forward to where we’re at today. Like what has that journey been like for you?
Yes, so the first time that I hired somebody, it was my kids’ babysitter. This was in 2013, and I realized that almost all my content was sponsored content. I was trying so hard to get those deals and get that relationship built with the brands. Then all I had time for was to cook and shoot the recipes that I was contracted to do and didn’t have time for my own content and that was really bothering me. I didn’t like that every single post had like, brands in the background, and those kinds of things. I hired our babysitter, Madison, for the summer and I taught her how to edit pictures and how to put together blog posts on WordPress.
We were cooking every day and I would go for a walk, and I would speech-to-text the blog post and email it to her. And I would take a picture of the recipe in my notebook, and she would take that and the pictures that she edited, and she would put it together on WordPress and schedule it out. So we ended up with like eight months of content scheduled out over that summer. The point of that was so that I could do two sponsored things a week, and they would get slotted in between these other things, and I didn’t have to worry about not having that purer content that was mine. What ended up happening was that I gave myself that breathing room and that’s when I had the idea for The Cookful.
But that was the first person that I hired and I mean it taught me to kind of let go a little bit. After that, I had some contributors. I had like two contractors who were helping me in the kitchen, and they were local. We got a system for organizing things, then that’s when Heather came on board and she got us on Basecamp, which is a project management system. It is my life. I’m in Basecamp continuously. I work in Basecamp, I run in Basecamp. It’s where everything is. So yes, then we had a couple of contributors and then I ended up hiring two ghost writer contractors a few years ago for Cook the Story. So that essentially means that I don’t do any of the content anymore. I direct the content, I’m doing the keyword research, and I often even kind of write the recipe. But yes, so ghostwriters, and then the contributors on The Cookful and then Heather was managing it all, and the social media contractor.
Well, I think the question I want to ask you, before we go into what it looks like now is, what did having all of that support, and also letting go of that control do for your business? I really want food bloggers to hear that it was a struggle for you to let go of that control. Because I think we all struggle with that, but I want them to also see what that did, and kind of how that helped your business to grow the way that it did.
So, the first thing that it did was, it made me enjoy cooking again. I don’t do any of the cooking for the site. I’m always kind of testing things, but it’s not in that same kind of diligent way. So that has been wonderful for me, how I’m growing my business by having other people do these things. I have the ghostwriters who are contractors doing the content, but that means I have the time to really think about what that content should be. I have time to do the keyword research, to research the stats on my site, to look on Pinterest, I’m looking everywhere. I did not have the time for that for sure before..
So, you have had a lot of different positions, a lot of contractors along the way, for both businesses or for both blogs. What are you shifting towards now, for your team?
It’s so exciting. So when I just realized that I had some positions to fill, and I was going to have to start looking for new contractors, like whatever was happening, this is I guess, six months ago. I was complaining to Britney, “I need to hire people, I can’t do this.” She was like, “You need to contact Meg. Meg Co, which is an HR contractor and they’re unbelievable.” But we had this meeting, and I’m like, “I need a business manager, I need this, we need contractors.” She was like, “Christine, you need full time employees. You need to have somebody who’s not trying to grow their own business, who can focus and be invested with you.”
So Meg convinced me to look for full time employees instead. So we’ve hired a full time business manager, which is wonderful and she works Monday to Friday 40 hours a week and does all sorts of things. Then we have a content manager, who puts together the blog posts from the ghost writers, and contributors. All these people are submitting all their stuff on Basecamp. So those people are on the team, and they’re amazing and the content manager has taken over my newsletter. I am still writing them, but she’s making sure the sequences all work and like she’s in Convert Kit. This week, we just wrapped up the interviews. We are hiring a full-time recipe developer/photographer/ghost blogger who is going to be doing full time recipe development. We’re hiring a full-time social media person, so it’s not going to be contract work. It’s going to be in-house, managing the accounts. I have a goal of getting on Tik Tok soon and I think that that is how we will do that. So yes, there’s going to be five of us, including me, full time working on the two sites.
So, if somebody is in the position where they’re hearing you talking, they’re saying, “That sounds amazing. I would love to have a team like that, or I would love to not be doing this part of the business.” What would be your advice for someone who just feels overwhelmed even at thinking about that process? But they know that they need it or they want it. What would your advice be for that person to get started?
Yes it’s tricky. Hiring the first person or the next person you need to, means you need to give up part of your income, which is never fun. I mean, we know food bloggers who are doing it all themselves. There are people who just thrive on it and are doing it, and they love it. I was in pain about a lot of it; it was tedious and hard and wasn’t exciting, and I wasn’t loving it. So I was making money, but I was not having a great time. By having a team who I’m in charge of essentially, I am able to mostly do the things that I love.
I’m launching a second podcast on November 1, and I’m doing the audio editing myself, because I’ve discovered that I love audio editing and it’s short. I have the space to play and have joy around the things that I’m doing. So I guess I would say if somebody’s thinking about it, if they’re content with how things are going, they don’t need to think about it. But if they are, I think that there’s that. The people have this control thing about, “Well, nobody can cook the recipes that I do. Or if I have somebody else developing these recipes, will my readers still have that quintessential “me” thing that they love?” But I feel like I’m able to be more quintessentially me in these recipes, with all this help I have. Like because I’m able to think them through more and to give that real direction and look at the site more globally and see what we need and spend that time there.
So the other thing that we just wanted to briefly touch on, I mentioned at the beginning, but we worked together on both of your websites and redesigning those this summer. We chatted a little bit before the episode that it was a big project to undertake. I would love to just hear about your experience a little bit and specifically, I would love to know, what was your favorite part of the experience of redesigning both of your websites?
Yes, so it was huge and we did them both at the same time. But I guess if anybody has two blogs and wants to know my opinion, they can get in touch. I love the website, I love what you’ve done, I love the logos, they’re beautiful and clean, and they’re easy to navigate. I find I use my site as a resource more than I did before, so I am really grateful for that. My favorite part was getting mockups, the mood board, and the logo from you. I was very resistant to doing any kind of mood boarding or anything. Anybody who’s been blogging for a long time probably feels this way too. I wanted things to stay as close to how they were before.
Part of why we were doing this, I didn’t really want to rebrand at all, it was just the backend was getting so clunky and we were having to hatch and fix so many little things as we hadn’t re-done the sites since I think 2014 or 2015. But doing that and then seeing the design come to life and seeing that refreshed logo and refreshed color scheme and realizing how outdated everything was, was incredible.
Experience wise, it was tough just because they’re my babies, those are my blogs and that worry, that fear even too, “Is traffic going to drop? Is there some weird platform thing that my sites have been built on that we’re going to get rid of, that it’s all going to crash?” That has not happened and everything is fine. But I really enjoyed seeing what you came up with, then watching it come to life, that was really cool.
As I said, I was very resistant to do that initial work because I didn’t want anything to change and I didn’t feel like my answers were great. Somehow you guys were able to pull the threads of the things that I did say and bring it in. You say it back to me and I’m like, “Oh, yes! That totally is what my site is.” I think that that is probably why you’re so brilliant at this, because you’re able to dig down into that and pull the important parts out, the physical manifestation of that, the difference I mean. I guess most people don’t have two blogs, so they’re not going to see this side by side.
But the color schemes of the two sites are so different. Cook the Story is solid and stable and The Cookful has this whimsical and fun quality to it. I don’t how you’ve done that, but they’re very different. The sites are very different in their audience and in how they approach things and you’ve somehow given that a physicality that I find really fascinating.
So, thank you for sharing all of that and for your kind words because of course that’s what we hope, is like how you’re feeling about it, but you just never really know. I appreciate you just being honest about everything as you’re sharing. You did mention that your sites have not crashed and burned, so thank you for saying that. But are there any other results or feedback that you would like to share that you’ve had since those redesigns went live? I think it was in July.
I find them easier to navigate and easier to find things. If I’m looking for ideas or looking for brainstorms, it’s somehow much more searchable and organized and little things like in my stats. My homepage has started to get a lot more traffic, but that’s because of the PR work that I’ve been doing. But I feel proud of that homepage, when I see that my homepage is my third most popular page on my site. I do feel a lot more pride around it. The other thing is that the recipe index is really high in the stats now, which it didn’t used to be. That means that people are coming and clicking on that. Those are things that I’ve noticed that I’m really happy with.
Well I would love for you to just share where people can connect with you. Where they can follow all the things and if you have any final thoughts or advice that you want to share in that too feel free to do so.
Cook the Story everywhere on social, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. Then my podcast Time Management Insider and you did ask at some point if people wanted to contribute to The Cookful what they should do. If you want to be a guest on TMI, I’m always interviewing people with interesting food situations.
Christine Pittman is the owner and founder of Cook the Story and The Cookful. Her passion is creating recipes that take less time in the kitchen, so that we can all spend more time enjoying life! She is a busy single mom of two, so she totally gets how tough it can be. That’s why she’s been figuring things out for her own family, and that’s why she wants to share this knowledge with others. She now helps over 2 million people a month get delicious meals onto their tables. You can connect with Christine on Instagram @CooktheStory and at Cook the Story.