Sarah Fennel began Broma Bakery in 2010 as a sophomore at NYU. She started the blog because she missed having a creative outlet. She’d studied photography intensely in high school, and had baked with her mom all throughout her childhood.
Her blog began as a hobby. Sarah’s career background had always been in the food industry, and the restaurant industry in particular. She worked at an ice cream shop at the age of 15, was a host, a server, an assistant manager for a café, did press relations for a farmers’ market, and social media and marketing for restaurant groups. Then, two years ago, she quit her full-time job.
“Everything was related to food and I just loved being in the food industry. While doing marketing and social media before I started my blog full-time, I had developed a skill set for how to market food."
And because she’s always had a natural enjoyment of food—it felt easy for her to market it.
“When I quit my job, I never thought Broma Bakery would be a full-time career. But everything I’ve done up to this point has hopefully positioned me to make this blog a career.”
What was the key moment for you in realizing that you could make it work sustainably as a full-time career?
“My story is definitely not the norm. It’s a lot different from others. I stumbled into doing it full-time. I was absolutely hating my job, and in such a bad place with work. And so I quit. On the first day I quit my job I Google'd how to make money on a food blog. “
Initially, she thought she would try it for 2 months and then reassess.
The pivotal point for her, she says--the ‘oh my God, let’s keep doing this' moment--came with using analytics to see how her blog was performing.
“Month over month it was doubling, getting bigger and bigger, and had more recognition. Seeing that growth in the first six months was huge.”
When Sarah quit her job that first week in September, her blog had been getting 30,000 page views a month. But, by January, it was getting 200,000. It’s leveled out since then, but seeing in such a short period of time that people were taking interest was the thing that got her going.
Can you talk to me a little bit about how you did that? How did you build an audience and what factors do you think triggered that growth?
“In the beginning I really focused on doing recipes that I felt were very intriguing and indulgent, things that were accessible in terms of familiar flavors but in exciting ways.”
Her content revolved around mash-ups like samoa brownies, things that were different and unique. But, the main factor was reaching out to a lot of bloggers she knew, opening a conversation with other people who knew what they were doing. “How did you do this?” she’d ask.
“For the first six months, my goal wasn’t about making money. It was about creating a wealth of content. I made sure to blog three times a week and push the content to be original."
Commenting on other blogs and developing a community with other bloggers also largely triggered her audience growth.
Can you go back and tell me a little bit about content creation? How has your brainstorming process evolved?
“It’s changed in two ways. 1) I’ve become much more scheduled and structured about creating and posting content through the use of content calendars. 2) I’ve become a lot more “careful” about what recipes I use. I test them multiple times. I get nervous about them because now they’re reaching so many people. I want them to be full-proof, something I’d be happy serving if I had my own bakery.”
She uses some other recipes as inspirations, but most of her content is completely original. “That being said, you know—there are other chocolate chip recipes out there,” she says.
What are the ways that you generate revenue in order to make your blog into a career that’s sustainable?
“At a cocktail party, I would call myself a food blogger. But what’s interesting about food blogging is that you wear so many hats. To be successful, you need to have an entrepreneurial mindset, a drive to create money and be able to talk with people and market yourself and reach out to companies. For me, it’s essential that I cultivate good working brand relationships.”
Sarah generates revenue through two main sources of income: 1) ads, and 2) sponsored content. Originally, she utilized companies that allowed her to place the ads by herself on her site, but now she uses a company that places the ads strategically for her. Regarding sponsored content, she strives to do brand partnerships with integrity.
“There’s a way to do it right and there’s a way to do it where it’s not as right – there’s not a way to do it wrong. Well, sometimes there is. You can create sponsored content in a meaningful way with real opinions and real journalism happening, but there’s so much that is out there that is skewed. That could be a whole topic in itself.”
Sarah says the brands she partners with have to align with her values.
“They have to be brands where I’ve tried the product, where I truly believe in what they’re doing and their message, the food they’re actually putting out.”
She recently declined to partner with Jonesville Sausage, a brand that is now working with reputable bloggers, but whose factory was shut down several years ago due to animal cruelty.
“I always need to make sure it’s something I truly believe in.”
On Wednesday, Sarah’s partnering with Chobani—who is looking to promote holiday bread recipes. She’s developing a recipe and baking chai banana bread using Chobani’s whole-milk Greek yogurt.
She acknowledges that for the consumer, however, it’s sometimes difficult to tell where the boundary lies with sponsored content. But it’s pretty easy to tell when something is done well and when it’s clearly a shameless plug, she says.
“Still, even as a writer for Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post, you’re getting paid a salary to write a certain way for a certain audience just by virtue of being at a big publication. You have much more freedom, but if we’re gonna get really picky about this—then true journalism is only when you’re working for yourself.”
We broach the subject for about 20 minutes before agreeing upon ‘it’s a messy space.’
Aside from ad revenue and brand partnerships, Sarah earns her income by producing freelance photography for other bloggers. It’s something she does on the side that's unique within her profession, she says, but she loves using her photography skillset.
I believe that food is about more than the food, as I’m sure you’d agree. Can you tell me about how certain storytelling components resonate with your work?
“It’s one of the foundations of what I do. For myself, I’m a visual storyteller. There are definitely other food bloggers that have more personal stories and personal messages put out there [in the form of writing], but I see my photography as my storytelling component. I know that sounds weird—but at the core of it, my photography is my brand. The way I photograph things and present them—that’s what I’m marketing. It’s huge, because you have to create something that’s cohesive and coherent, that people can recognize and say ‘ooo, that’s that person’. “
Sarah laughs, admitting to me that she hates writing.
“It’s not weird at all,” I reassure her. And she knows. Because regardless of whether it’s photography, writing, or through another means—blogging is all about storytelling.
“You’re not just posting a recipe,” she tells me. “Today I posted these salted caramel scotcharoos and there were three times when me and my friends stopped what we were doing to go eat the scotcharoos. It creates this thing that’s more than just food. Food just really is an experience and who you’re with.”
As a food blogger, she continues, you’re serving as a magnified view of a certain life or a certain set of experiences
But at the end of the day, she says, it really is the food that brings food bloggers together.
“Throughout the food blogging industry we all just love food—and it’s not that just we love to eat. We love the culture that comes with it.”
Where do you see yourself headed in the future?
Sarah recently got signed by a production house in Toronto, which wants to work with her to pilot a new food show.
During a brainstorming session, the executive producer asked her “so why are you in the career that you’re in?”
“If I weren’t doing this my ideal job would be a photo editor at Bon Appetit,” she says she thought to herself.
But later, her boyfriend asked her “why not do photography in general?”
“I said no—I want to be in this food industry. There’s something about food that’s so intriguing to me. Is it because it’s so universal? Clearly everyone can relate to it on some level, and everybody has a very basic but very necessary pull towards food. I think it’s fascinating.”
Right now, Sarah is focused on "just letting things happen.”
“Most peoples’ goal is to create a cookbook. I don’t want to do that. I want to be able to keep creating and exploring. This is the best money I’ve ever made, the happiest I’ve ever been. And it’s not unattainable. It just takes self-motivation.”