carla lalli music cooking on patreon
Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Screenshots from Patreon 

Can Small-Scale Subscriptions Change Food Media for the Better?

With former ‘Bon Appétit’ stars and food bloggers now on Patreon and Substack, the relationship between food creators and their followers is changing.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
March 9, 2021, 6:32pm

What would you pay to have direct access to your favorite recipe developer? For video star and cookbook author Molly Baz to answer questions about her “crackle sauce” over Discord? Or for baking blogger Michelle Lopez of Hummingbird High to walk you through how to make a wedding cake? The cost of a coffee? Two coffees? What about $100 a month? Or maybe your answer is nothing: You can find anything for free online. 

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On Patreon, a platform that lets consumers support creators through monthly memberships, five dollars a month for Baz’s Recipe Club earns you access to exclusive weekly recipes and a Discord community with Baz and other subscribers. Baz launched Recipe Club in November after leaving Bon Appétit the previous month. She wasn’t sure if the publication’s readers were fans of its staff or fans of the publication, but she said on a phone call, “What was incredible to see once I left BA—and I think a lot of people who have left BA since have experienced this—is that support completely translated.” By early December, Recipe Club had “several thousand” paying subscribers, Business Insider confirmed.

Similarly, BA alum Carla Lalli Music uses Patreon to put out cooking videos every other week, plus recipes and other content, for eight dollars a month. Michelle Lopez, who’s been blogging since 2011, has tiered Patreon memberships with varying benefits: $1, $5, $10, $35, and even $100—the latter gives subscribers monthly one-on-one time with Lopez, which they use for recipe development, professional mentorship, and personalized baking instruction. 

There’s also Substack, which lets people send free and paid newsletters and which many food creators now use for sharing writing and recipes. In addition to a free essay each week, $30 a year gets you a weekly guest interview and a monthly discussion thread from freelance writer Alicia Kennedy, whose newsletter From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy (on which I’ve been an interview guest and also a paid subscriber) is Substack’s third most popular paid Food and Drinks option. Top in the category is Alison Roman, who’s focusing on Substack ($50 per year, though she also shares free recipes) and her own YouTube after parting ways with the New York Times in December.

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This shift is happening across media: By necessity and by choice, writers and other creators are leaning on platforms where devoted followers can support them directly, instead of putting all their effort into traditional distribution models like newspapers or magazines. Creators gain a sense of creative control and more appreciation for their labor. Consumers find a personalized experience with more transparency; they’re supporting individuals, not institutions. As more content in the food space moves toward subscriptions instead of ads, the relationship between consumers and creators is changing. In a time when media institutions face greater accountability from consumers, could this model change food media for the better? 

The rise of Patreon and Substack has come out of necessity for many creators. When Molly Baz and Carla Lalli Music parted ways with Bon Appétit in late 2020 after reports of the magazine’s racist culture and its resulting reckoning in the summer, they found their recipes without homes. Baz, who’d always wanted to create her own “little food empire,” found her timeline expedited. “I had to very quickly put all of those future plans into action if I wanted to stay afloat,” she said. 

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Lopez of Hummingbird High joined Patreon after the COVID-19 pandemic caused a drop in advertiser spending and her income took a hit. Charles Hunter III of the food blog, personal chef service, and catering company The Salted Table got on the platform to recoup some lost income after events and gatherings were canceled. For Kennedy, it was the end of a contract that accounted for half her income that prompted her to get on Substack last February; to her surprise, the newsletter became her main source of income by July.

Creators have found upsides to this distribution model. After nine years at Bon Appétit, Music likes Patreon for the decision-making power it gives her; she can make choices like putting a dollar out of every membership each month toward a nonprofit and prioritizing diversity as she hires collaborators. “I would say one of the big shifts is sort of going from a place of influence and the ability to offer opinions, to one where I decide,” Music said. 

These platforms can be a home for work that doesn’t fit elsewhere. As Cathy Erway recently wrote in Food52, this direct-to-consumer food media boom has an unfiltered, “off the cuff” nature that’s reminiscent of the early blog days. Dennis Lee’s Food Is Stupid newsletter, for example, offers paid subscribers posts like frozen SpaghettiOs popsicles and ranch dressing thumbprint cookies

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Kennedy’s newsletter lets her focus on food through cultural criticism, as opposed to the common model of telling consumers what to eat and what cookbooks to buy. A recent essay uses natural peanut butter’s backlash to question convenience and supply chains. Freelancing spread her writing across publications, but publishing on Substack creates a clearer chronology and throughline—and Kennedy doesn’t have to chase editors to get paid. “It's more reliable to rely on myself and my audience than it is to rely on a publisher right now,” she said. 

Audience is a huge consideration. The recipe developers I talked to shared a sense of a more personal relationship with their paid subscribers. With over 400,000 followers on Instagram, Music finds that she misses messages there, but she’s confident she sees everything on Patreon where she has “a few thousand” subscribers and has a paid incentive to respond. Unlike the recipe development he does for magazines, Hunter finds that his Patreon audience enjoys it when he’s more freeform with the cooking process. “It’s some real insight into who I am as a chef and a cook in the comfort of my own home,” he said. Since people pay for just four recipes per month, Baz feels more pressure to make each one perfect. 

The glut of free recipes, videos, and articles online led to the expectation that things should be free; consumers now complain about ads and lengthy text on the food blogs where they get recipes for free, or share their disdain for cooking websites’ paywalls. Interactions can at times feel transactional, Lopez said, as though people see her as just a source of free recipes. In the last few years, she’s noticed more of the “why can’t you just get to the recipe?” mindset. 

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Patreon, however, draws in her most invested followers, those who are more likely to comment, give suggestions, and join discussions to help Lopez tailor her content. “Somebody who's a Patreon supporter wants to hear the stories, understand that food usually comes with a story, and that behind this content that they see is a person,” she said. “It's not some random robot recipe-generating thing that doesn't have any feelings.” 

For some consumers, the concept just doesn’t add up ideologically or financially: You could pay $8 for her two videos a month, or you could pay $8 for a near-infinite library of content on Netflix, Music said, and as a result, people often ask why she can’t just put free content on YouTube. So when a year’s subscription to Cook’s Illustrated will run you $25 for six issues, what’s the upside of paying a similar amount for just one person’s content? 

Technology coordinator Kelly McKew, who subscribes to Jenn de la Vega’s Randwiches for two dollars a month, appreciates that the recipes she receives are more realistic for her solo cooking than the ones in food magazines. With de la Vega also “incredibly accessible” for questions, “I appreciate the personal touches and relatability of my patronage with Jenn,” McKew said.

It’s less about the recipes and more about the creator for systems engineer AJ DiGregorio, who paid for Dennis Lee’s Food Is Stupid ($50 per year) after following Lee’s writing since 2018. “Let's be real—I'm not going to ever make anything Dennis Lee posts on Food is Stupid. But his writing is fantastic and a lot of fun to read,” DiGregorio said. With a large cookbook collection and a handful of go-to recipe resources, they don’t see a reason to pay for more recipes. But, they added, “I love paying for good writing, good videography, and good food photography.”

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Tech startup co-founder Sam Tackeff was happy to subscribe to Adam Roberts’s paid newsletter ($30 per year) in January since she’s followed his Amateur Gourmet blog for about 15 years. “With the existing models for creators to make money shifting (ad dollars and sponsored posts falling out of style), I'm always looking for better ways to support people,” Tackeff said.

A common thread among these subscribers is the idea of supporting individuals who do “good work.” This is gaining popularity across different parts of the internet as viewers tip Twitch streamers and Venmo TikTok stars, as Terry Nguyen wrote for Vox. Twitter’s new “Super Follow” function will let users charge for content. Of course, the ability to take part in this economy requires a certain amount of extra room in your budget, and multiple subscriptions can add up quickly.

But for those who can, supporters feel that putting money behind a single creator can feel better than pouring it into big media brands, especially given the reports of institutional misbehavior that have reached the zeitgeist over the past year—from the restructuring of BA to the ouroboros of workplace reckonings it set off at Gimlet’s Reply All. Following the events at BA last summer and inspired by the pandemic’s effects on the food industry, nonprofit consultant Talia Alongi canceled her magazine subscription. She has since shifted her dollars “to get money more directly to creators, and ideally BIPOC creators,” though she said her roster of subscriptions could still better reflect that. 

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One cook in the kitchen is a safer sell. “You know their interests, you know their life, you know their recipes, and it's not some weird corporate machine that you're not really sure what's happening behind the scenes there,” Baz said. 

With the high profile nature of the situation at BA, consumers are perhaps more aware than ever of the flaws in food media: how racist systems affect the writing and recipe content you see; how structural inequity elevates some people but not others, reinforcing the status quo. But read a piece like Insider’s write-up of the Recipe Club launch, and it’s easy to think Patreon and Substack are a quick solution. “A former Bon Appétit food editor's new subscription-based business is a blueprint for anyone wanting freedom, creative control, and thousands of subscribers in just a month,” it read. These new platforms aren’t without problems. The writer Clio Chang posed a question in the Columbia Journalism Review: Despite Substack’s suggestion that anyone can make it, does it replicate the flaws of the existing media system? “The most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well-served by existing media power structures,” Chang wrote. Most creators aren’t coming off one of the most successful food franchises on the internet, and even Baz understands that building an individual brand in food right now is incredibly hard.

While having a large online presence will pull people in, the conversion from free to paid subscribers remains slim. Lopez and Music both mentioned that they can’t put all their effort into Patreon; they still have to commit to other platforms. And though Lopez would like more patrons, she feels “iffy” about the idea of paywalling even some of what she produces. “It does feel like it's shutting out people who don't necessarily have the financial resources to access this thing that has always been free,” she said. 

The pandemic made Lopez realize she’d put all her eggs in the basket of brand partnerships and ad revenue on the blog. Although Patreon now helps cover ingredients and part of her rent, she’s not likely to make it her only platform. Traditional publications, realizing the same thing about ad-based revenue models, are now branching even more into subscription-based models, including newsletters.

Traditional publications are listening to these shifts—but how much? “I would hope that publications are looking and seeing the kind of work that people are willing to pay for—and to pay kind of a premium for—and maybe do more work in that way,” said Kennedy. She pointed to Vittles, the Substack publication started by writer Jonathan Nunn that explores topics like finding a “truer version of Dubai” through chai and institutional food in nursing and care homes, as the best food newsletter that’s emerged.

As to whether these Patreons and Substacks will cause big shifts in institutions, however, we remain skeptical. The status quo of “white men in suits” still is “not interested in real diversity of ideas,” in Kennedy’s estimation. As a result, she said, “I'm not sure we're gonna really see that kind of trickle up effect of changes—maybe. I don't think so though, because everything is too set in its ways.”

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