Allrecipes.com made it big online by providing magic in the kitchen

Dec 27, 2011

During the Holiday Season, from Thanksgiving to New Years Day, a lot of people are spending extra hours in the kitchen. And while that used to entail dusting off an old recipe box or paging through a sticky and splattered cookbook – today, more aspiring chefs are using their laptops, tablets or smart-phones to look up recipes online.

And when they do, there will be one Website from Seattle that will serve up more piping hot recipes than any other.

Here’s the story from KPLU’s Vanessa Romo:

On Thanksgiving, I was assigned the job of stuffing maker … having never made it before I turned to the internet and Googled “awesome turkey stuffing recipe.”

What came up first actually has “awesome” in the title: “Awesome, Sausage, apple and cranberry stuffing recipe” from Allrecipes.com.

In fact, the first three links that popped up are from Allrecipes.com – a website with about 45,000 user-submitted recipes. I was sold as soon as I clicked on the first link and saw that 73,000 aspiring stuffing makers had saved this recipe to their online accounts.

700 million and counting

It turns out, this is how AllRecipes.com, the most popular food site in the country, gets a lot of its traffic (about 700 million unique visitors a year).  And the holidays, from November to New Years Day, is what Stephanie Robinett calls their Super Bowl.

“This is definitely our busiest time of year,” she said.

But this isn’t like Santa’s Workshop. This is actually an internet enterprise that’s a force to be reckoned with.

“We are a tech company at heart,” Robinett said. “And I think, a lot of people when they think of us, especially tech publications, when we call them and say, Hey we’ve got these awesome stats, they’re like, ‘Wait, you’re not just cooking all day.’ We’re like, ‘No, we’re one of the biggest web sites there is online today.’ ”

Foodies vs. Eaties

Robinett loves talking about the differences between Foodies and Eaties. She’s an Eatie. On a recent and surprisingly sunny Seattle day, we sat in All Recipes’ gorgeous kitchen over looking Westlake Park.   

There’s a flurry of activity but not quite what I’d expected. A couple from a campaign team is cooking up Nachos for their weekly meeting; a VP is cutting up strawberries for a fruit salad.

“You get the ‘Freshmen 15’ when you start working here,” Robinett joked.

Still, I’d imagined a team of chefs in crisp white coats testing out every recipe that comes in. Instead, All Recipes has a culinary editorial staff that reviews recipes before publishing them online. They also have a team of translators who publish the recipes in 12 different languages – from Portugese to Polish.

Humble beginnings

 “We’re on track to getting over 25 million unique visitors to the site this month alone. And we have consistently been growing, I think double digits every month for the past five years,” Robinett said.

Those are some impressive numbers for a website that was created as a favor to a friend’s wife 15 years ago.

David Quinn was getting his masters in teaching at the University of Washington when he met a group of anthropology students who were really into this thing called the Internet. They had all the know-how but no cash. That’s where Quinn came in.

The students stalked the parking lots looking for people to get into fancy cars, figure they’d have money and when they saw him stepping up to a totally “cherry” new car – a 95 Jeep Cherokee – they buttonholed him.

He jumped in the game with them, and together they launched dozens of sites including one about beer. And one day the wife of one of the other founders asked them to help her put up a site so she could trade cookie recipes with friends.

“And Cookie Recipes took off right out of the gate,” Quinn said.

Baby steps to millionaires

Before long they ran into the kind of problem every entrepreneur would love to have. The site grew too quickly.

“People would write in and they’d say, oh, Cookie Recipe is awesome. Do we put cake recipes on there? And we’d say … uhh ...no you put them on Cake Recipe.com. And so we quickly built out Cake Recipe.com. So Cookie begot Cake begot Pie and then people said, could you build us DessertRecipe.com?” Quinn said.

From there they branched out into the savory dishes. Eventually they put everything under the umbrella of AllRecipes.com. It was a great move and in 2006 Quinn and his partners sold the company for $66 million to Readers Digest.

Quinn, despite being a millionaire many times over, is now a high school English teacher in Edmonds.  He says he’s proud of the things he and his partners pioneered.

“Right now there are some core things about the internet that we take for granted. Like people generating content onto web sites. When we first started Cookie Recipe nobody was doing that and people thought we were crazy,” Quinn said.

The science behind the magic

Today that model is what drives a lot of the websites we visit most often. Look no further than YouTube.

Andrew Lipsman works for comScore, a company that tracks online traffic. He explains why it works so well.

“Part of what makes that successful is that while the concern is that not every recipe is going to be a great one, because users can rate other people’s recipes, it ensures that the best recipes on the site do get visibility,” Lipsman said.

In case you’re still unimpressed because you’ve never heard of All Recipes, how about this: Their traffic numbers are right up there with NFL.com and Netflix. And, as digital devices become less cumbersome, more home cooks are looking up recipes online and using apps to help them whip up tasty dishes.

… which is another market All Recipes has cornered. Their app just surpassed 10 million downloads last month.

What about the stuffing?

Back in All Recipes’ fancy kitchen, Stephanie Robinett talks about the natural connection between food and social networking.

“It’s part of our DNA. We’ve always operated on the fact that you don’t need to be a culinary expert to cook a good recipe and people have been doing it for years, centuries, generations. … They’ve been rating and reviewing recipes for years and years and we’re just providing them a platform,” Robinett said.

As for my Awesome Apple and Cranberry stuffing, well 73,000 users couldn’t possibly be wrong. It was indeed, Awesome.