With 350,000 products and $19 billion in annual revenue, US Foods is one delicious account.
In 2012, the Rosemont, Illinois-based foodservice mammoth began hunting for a content agency to increase sales and burnish its brand. They sniffed out Imagination Publishing from the culinary riches of the Windy City, and launched Food Fanatics, a consumer title for the restaurant services B-suite, spotlighting chefs, ingredients, recipes and business trends, and shrewdly unleashed its 6,000-member sales force to distribute the print product to current and potential customers.
Imagination launched a social media program, and an iPad version followed, built around consumer-facing editorial sharpened by editorial director Laura Yee, a former features and food editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and headline punster Carly Fisher (see sidebar).
We spoke to Laura Yee, fresh off the triumph of winning four Pearl Awards for her team’s efforts, and asked her to break bread and talk about what goes on behind the scenes at Imagination.
Content: U.S. Foods has nearly 20 brands in its corporate portfolio. Does that make an editorial job more difficult?
Laura Yee: The content is editorially independent of US Foods' corporate portfolio. CEO John Lederer and senior leadership believe strongly that credibility is key to the success of US Foods' branding as a thought leader.
Can you give us an example of a specific story that you ran that really grew on social media?
Clucking Amazing Chicken is a consistently good performer. In the last metrics report, "donut" and "Filipino roasted chicken" were the top searched keywords. Donuts was the top viewed article page that wasn't the home page, one of the landing pages or the blog.
And what's the best constructive feedback you've ever received?
That we needed to be more relevant to mom and pop restaurants. There is a very fine line to walk: inspirational vs. aspirational. We've done this by offering more lists (Top 11 Reasons of What Not to Do to Control Food Costs; Top 9 Ways to Stay Hot and Relevant) that offer practical advice.
Tell us about the rollout of the iPad magazine: what is the goal of the product, and how will you determine its success?
The goal of the iPad is to increase availability and visibility of the magazine. The iPad allows the reader/chef/operator to be engaged in the content. For example, the art for the burger story that appeared in the magazine consists of individual parts of a burger separated (lettuce, tomato, etc) but on the iPad, the burger starts that way but the components collapse into a plated burger. We also feature exclusive content on the iPad and microsite.
The biggest challenge in the iPad newsstand ecosystem is promoting it. What are some things you're doing to get the word out?
US Foods is allotted five pages per issue of the magazine and has created ads promoting the iPad. US Foods has also promoted the iPad internally through its weekly newsletter blast. We also use flags in the magazine to push to the iPad.
Tell us a bit about your editorial creation for the website vs. the iPad mag.
The content for the website and iPad starts as the same - a direct translation of the magazine. However, we offer exclusive and interactive content in the other channels. They include additional recipes and more extensive information on any given subject.
How do you make the client feel like they're a part of the editorial process?
Client approval is built into every issue. It begins with the annual editorial calendar. We then share storylines for each issue, followed by manuscripts. We shoot original photography for the magazine and share the inspiration for the cover, spread and section openers. There is also an approval process for the layout, tweaks are made and then the final version is presented to the CEO and senior management.
This sounds involved, but there are very few changes. Various US Foods department heads read the manuscripts but typically just bless it, saying it's all good. That said, we welcome the input because it makes for a better product. For example, our story on sustainable seafood—the writer referenced a number of sources and figures from a nonprofit sustainability group. There are many of these, but the US Foods regulatory guru shared with us the numbers behind the numbers—in other words, the information is often framed with agenda in mind. This helped us round out the story.
Including the client in each step of the magazine, we believe, makes US Foods feel like they are a part of the process. We believe our expertise in food and foodservice creates a level of trust so that the client does not feel a need to micromanage the process.
At editorial and design meetings, do you guys ever make the cooking pun with clients, there are "too many cooks in the kitchen"?
That's funny. We have joked about that internally—meaning the cooks are in our own shop—not the client. All said, the client has allowed us to do what we do best—pairing strong, relevant content with good design. People often ask me about the success of the magazine. I think we have an awesome, talented crew but at the end of the day, we know the mission and goal of the client and that's to be a thought leader in the food and hospitality industry.
Are you a Food Fanatic?
I am a former hard news reporter who then went to features and eventually food editor at a metropolitan daily. Most of my experience for Food Fanatics came from being the food editor of a now defunct but well respected trade pub called Restaurants & Institutions. My husband of 15 years is a chef and I owned a boutique PR agency that specialized in restaurants just before Food Fanatics. My takeaway from this business (restaurants) is that you must be masochistic or truly passionate about what you do because it's a very difficult way to make a living!