Magazine Eats World: The Ever-Expanding Edible Empire

Illustration by Mikel Jaso

If you have lived or traveled in the United States or Canada in the last 10 years and have any interest in local food, there’s a good chance you’ve come across a copy of an Edible magazine. The magazine franchise has grown like kudzu. A free monthly (or quarterly), it is found in neighborhood coffee shops, bookstores, local grocers, cheesemongers and farm-to-table restaurants in more than 80 communities throughout the U.S. and Canada.

But how did they get inside every health food store from Maine to Arizona? And how many people read the magazines? Or do people merely collect them as a free coffee-table accessory, a nod to supporting local restaurants and farmers?

But how Edible get inside every health food store from Maine to Arizona? And how many people read the magazines? Or do people merely collect them as a free coffee-table accessory, a nod to supporting local restaurants and farmers?

Probably a bit of both, and that’s why the Edible story is so interesting. Edible magazines were the first to successfully target the local-food community while existing outside mainstream publishing. Like a kind of 21st-century alt-weekly chain, they have a dedicated following of local-minded foodies and have succeeded where other hyperlocal enterprises (websites Patch and EveryBlock, for example) have failed.

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The first Edible appeared in Ojai, California, in 2002. Co-founders Tracey Ryder, president and CEO, and her partner, photographer and Creative Director Carole Topalian, ran it like a local free supplement — selling enough paid advertising to cover the cost of printing, production and distribution. Ryder (who was also selling the ads) wrote the stories, and Topalian took the pictures. After two years, Ryder had the great idea to formulate a licensing model.

“The licensing model is now the core of our business,” says Ryder. “Each licensee pays a onetime fee of $95,000 for a licensing agreement that is renewable every 10 years for free. Most pay $35,000 down, and we finance 60,000 over six years of time. We want to make it sustainable for them to manage their business.”

A whole culture has sprung up around Edible magazines — within the magazine’s network, editors compete for striking covers, more readers, the best ads.

In light of this, Ryder agrees to take quarterly payments and lets licencees pay for the licensing agreement out of the cash flow from their magazines. Those that want to pay cash up front get the fee for a discounted rate of $78,000.

“From there,” says Ryder, “we collect 5 percent on local ad sales. We also sell national and regional ads and do a rough fifty-fifty split.” In exchange, Edible headquarters provides a whole package of services, including designing ads and magazine layout for the first four issues. Ryder’s team develops each new website and lets the local editor loose to fill it with content. A whole culture has sprung up around Edible magazines — within the magazine’s network, editors compete for striking covers, more readers, the best ads. There is an annual publisher conference, the Edible Institute (their version of the Oscars, where awards called EDDYs are given to the most successful Edibles), workshops with outside speakers and access to legal help (Edible trademarks every one of the individual communities’ names and licenses).

“We handle everything they need to be successful as publishers,” says Ryder.

So, now, the tiny magazine from Ojai is found across the United States and Canada. All, according to Ryder, are “doing well because the hyperlocal print model is thriving in the food space.” Of course, there are downsides to the licensing model: Ryder and company can help lay the design foundations of every issue, but the editorial side is up to individual editors. Unlike, say, foreign versions of Vogue or Wired, content is not shared across titles and there is less consistency within the brand. Advertising, also, isn’t a sure thing for the local versions. Ryder says that the Boston, Vancouver and Austin magazines are the best performers, with Boston being “the biggest market.”

While the Edible team has gotten offers from would-be Edible owners in South America, Mexico, Europe, South Africa and elsewhere, they are focusing on a new media platform: television. As farmers and craft brewers have proved to be more popular than recipes in recent years, the Edible team is working with PBS affiliate WGBH in Boston on “Edible Feast,” leaning heavily on the James Beard award–winning filmmakers responsible for “Perennial Plate,” Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine, to provide much of the footage. “For our first season, we needed to get on the air quickly,” Ryder says. The weekly show began airing in early 2014. After that, the Edible team will be working on digital apps, an online travel guide and making sure that no small town is unturned in the Edible takeover of North America.

“For 2014, we’re launching Grand Rapids, Michigan; Palm Springs, California; and Lexington, Kentucky,” Ryder says. “There is so much going on that international editions will have to wait. I have to sleep now and then.”

Correction: An earlier edition of story incorrectly noted the regularity of publication. It is quarterly and monthly, depending on the location.

Magazine Eats World: The Ever-Expanding Edible Empire