No matter what your skill level is in the kitchen, having the right tools on-hand makes a world of a difference, and most people have a favorite knife, pan, or wooden spoon (and so on) for specific reasons based on their preferences and the types of cooking they do at home. So when it came time to design their own line of products for the kitchen and home, lifestyle brand Food52 decided to have their passionate, food-obsessed audience of 13 million people take a pivotal role in the design process.
Food52 launched its direct-to-consumer line Five Two last October with a kitchen staple, a cutting board (which is being relaunched this summer with tweaks based on consumer feedback), and have since released kitchen towels, wooden spoons, silicone straws, wool dryer balls and an apron. Upcoming launches include oven mitts and pot holders (mid-July), mixing bowls (late July) and silicone lids (late August).
The company gathers community input and feedback using a variety of methods, including Instagram posts and stories, multiple choice surveys distributed via email and on their website, and in-person events with their Design Team: the more than 26,000 Food52 community members who regularly share their ideas and opinions on future launches.
I caught up with Food52 co-founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs to learn more about the inspiration behind the Five Two brand and the design process.
Abigail Abesamis: What inspired you to make your own home and kitchen line?
Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs: We knew from the early days of our Shop that at some point we would design and make our own products. But we wanted to do it in a way that was true to the spirit of Food52, which is all about community. We have a lot of experience gathering and acting on ideas and inspiration from the Food52 community, and we realized that we could make the products that they really wanted if we simply asked and listened.
Abesamis: What was the process like for bringing your products to market? How long did it take, from conceptualization to having a completed product?
Hesser and Stubbs: Generally, for us, the development of highly engineered products takes about a year and for handmade products closer to six months. It all depends though.
Our ceramic mixing bowls coming out this summer, for instance, took over a year to produce as we were dead set on a certain form that made them extremely difficult to manufacture. It was a community member’s feedback on our first prototype that actually spurred this decision. The bowls were beautiful and worked well before, but we knew the suggested changes would push them to the next level. It took multiple rounds to get them right, but once we did, we knew all of the effort was worth it. Every product thus far has followed a similar path, but with its own unique twists and turns.
We’ve learned that you have to go into things with the understanding that certain factors are a bit outside of your control. Hitting deadlines is something you can aim for, but from the outset, you need to be willing to change or pad them to accommodate potential manufacturing delays, extra prototype tweaking, or more intense user testing. Kristina Wasserman, our director of product development, has handled all of this with incredible grace and patience, and the products show it. Being accepting of these changes or knowing when to abandon a certain route is what will ultimately get you a better product. The process in many ways is integral to the final result.
Abesamis: How do you decide which products to make?
Hesser and Stubbs: Initially we wanted to focus on the core essentials (like a cutting board, a great apron, kitchen towels, knives, cookware) and make the best versions of these products we could. As we went through the process of gathering our community's thoughts on the first few products, other ideas began to surface as a result of what they were telling us. The dryer balls and silicone straws we recently launched are the direct result of increasing feedback we've been getting from our community about wanting an eco-friendly lifestyle that feels joyful rather than spartan.
Abesamis: How are you addressing the feedback you’ve received for products that have already launched?
Hesser and Stubbs: We always strive to give people products they will love, especially with Five Two, which is all about bringing our community’s ideas and opinions to life. In many ways, Five Two began as an experiment: it’s the first-ever community-powered design process at scale, and it has certainly been a steep learning curve for us. Ultimately, we are working to create the best products possible, and if we have learned anything since launching in October, it’s that listening to our community and being ready to tweak and adjust is key.
With the cutting board, after hearing about a slight uptick in cracking levels, we conducted tests with multiple manufacturers and wood mills and found that certain hardwoods were showing higher risks of warping or cracking this past winter than what was normal. We didn't love the idea of continuing with a material that could be so easily susceptible to environmental changes, so we decided to work on a new iteration of the board in bamboo, launching this summer –– something that would be more robust in any humidity level or season, and of course something that was more sustainable (another major request we heard loud and clear from the community).
So no matter the stage of the product, when the community shares feedback we listen. We are always open to iterating and improving.