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Say It Ain’t So: Edible Chesapeake Folds

November 25th, 2009 · 5 Comments · Posted in food news

A sad day for local food in the nations capitol

A sad day for local food in the nation's capitol

Renee Catacalos, publisher of Edible Chesapeake magazine, yesterday e-mailed all her fans to deliver some devastating news: after just four years of delivering the best coverage of local, sustainable food in our area, she is closing the magazine.

Edible Chesapeake is part of a family of publications delivering similar content about the good food movement around the country. In each location, it is run as a kind of franchise by a local publisher. Renee resurrected Edible Chesapeake with great energy and flair. It seemed that wherever locally produced food was being discussed, Renee was there to move the discussion forward.

So I asked Renee what prompted her decision to close the publication. The answer is partly money–the magazine doesn’t generate enough of it–but mostly, she says, it was about time, and the great amount of it the magazine demanded of her. She just couldn’t hire enough people to do everything that needed to be done, and leave a little bit for herself and her family. But rather than me summarizing, I will simply reprint the e-mail Renee sent to me today:

Hi Ed,
I appreciate your interest in getting deeper into this on behalf of the community. I think it is in fact important for people to understand some of the challenges that face businesses, whether they are publications, stores, restaurants, farms or artisan food producers, when they try to be a part of the community but also be sustainable for their owners. Sustainability, as you know, encompasses not only the flow of natural resources, but also the flow of financial resources and time resources as well.
Without going into the financials too much, I will say the financial equation wasn’t working for me, although that’s something that will be different for every publisher depending on their other resources, their family needs, their tolerance for risk in an investment, their ability to weather economic ups and downs, etc. But even more critical was the time investment. You can find ways to raise more revenue or cut costs or whatever to tweak a bottom line, but you can’t manufacture time. The business was too big for one person (or at least this one person with a family) to run, but not big enough to be able to hire significant help with the business end.
There are so many moving parts involved with a print publication, beyond the editorial, which was really the easiest part. I had four very good part-time ad sales people and we could have used more. We were dealing with 60+ advertisers per issue – getting everyone to meet deadline, getting the artwork right, billing them, getting everyone to pay. We were distributing 40,000 copies a quarter, to places where locavores congregate – Whole Foods, MOM’s, farmers markets, independent stores that featured local products, farm stands, CSAs, special events. Few of those places are on normal publication distribution routes. Subscription management was really my Achilles heel. We had several hundred subscribers whose personal vote of support was really important. I was never able to set up a foolproof system for making sure that every single one of them got their subscriptions fulfilled properly. Every quarter there were 4 or 5 folks whose orders somehow fell through the cracks and I always felt so bad about that.
It was hard to keep up with a lot of the office stuff because I spent so much time out at events, which I loved doing. I loved talking to people and answering their questions and learning new things about our local foodshed from them. I know the events were really important as a marketing tool as well. We always got a few new subscribers or made a contact that turned into advertising when I could moderate a panel on local food or be at a grocery storeor restaurant event highlighting local products or speak at a community group’s sustainability fair or do a seasonal cooking demo on TV. But those things required my time, which not only made me less efficient in managing the business, but kept me away from my family a lot. My kids are 9 and 11 and they loved Edible Chesapeake, too. But for most of this last season, I was unable to find the time to pick up my CSA share from Clagett Farm and cook for my family. Taking time to go out to the farm, to talk with Carrie (our farmer) and the volunteers and other shareholders while choosing the items for the week has always been one of my pleasures. The opportunity to slow down and to support agriculture in Prince George’s County, which is where I live, and actually be on the farm and see the crops in the fields, is important to me. That’s what I was doing before I took over Edible Chesapeake and it didn’t seem right to lose that experience for myself and my family, even though the magazine was so important to the community.
I think it would be great if someone – I would recommend a group of people – could come forward to publish an Edible in this region again. I would hope they would be known and connected to the local food community. But they have to be prepared for the incredible commitment. In a way, it’s great that the commitment needed is so high. The community values the magazine so much and puts such a responsibility on the publisher, that it’s great to know it’s valued. I also have to caution, though, that more support will be needed. Businesses, including farmers markets, that want to distribute the magazine, should also support it through advertising. That’s the only way it can be free for those businesses to hand it out to people. I probably wasn’t as strict about that as I should have been. And the businesses in this very targeted niche, who are reaching out to educated buyers who are willing to spend for high-quality and high-conscious food, need to be prepared to pay sustainable rates to advertise. It’s no different than a specialty grower charging more for food that is produced using special care and organic methods, etc. Edible Chesapeake was a specialty, artisan-quality publication, and a lot of extra effort and care is required to produce something like that.

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  • Pattie

    Ed: Edible Atlanta lasted only five issues (and I was grateful to be able to write for it, as my clips from those issues are among my favorite). A year or two later, a new version launched called Edible Metro and Mountains. I’m not sure how it is doing, and I don’t write for it, but at least we have an Edible publication back in our neck of the woods. MUCH hope that yours will resurrect as well.

  • Ed Bruske

    Pattie, it seems like many of these Edible magazines have struggled. They are, after all, niche publications. But what I think deserves special attention is the fact that Washington, D.C. has become an international food city, as well as being the nation’s capitol. If a publicaton of this kind can survive anywhere, you would think it would be here (New York City also springs to mind). I thought this was an opportune time to examine the business model, which obviously didn’t work for Renee Catacalos but, as she said, might work for someone–or a group of someone’s–who don’t have the family commitments. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a path to wealth and riches.

  • meldogsun

    Oh, I am so sad. It was such a unique pleasure to read Edible Chesapeake. In fact, I just started freelance writing and was ready to pitch some ideas their way. But, as a mother of 3, I totally understand the lack of time that Renee described. I do hope that there is a group of folks who will take the helm. I will definitely support it!


  • kimsikes

    That’s very sad news. I learned and discovered so much from Edible Chesapeake. It’s a shame that such a great resource couldn’t get all the support it needed. I do hope it will be resurrected but fortunately for us, there is an Edible Blue Ridge that just launched and covers the Piedmont area and the new Flavor Magazine covers the “capital foodshed”. Both are wonderful resources.

  • Nato

    I am also sad about the cessation of this publication. I looked forward to obtaining a copy each month while shopping at the Takoma Park Farmers’ Market.

    Today, while at Big Bad Woof in Takoma (D.C.), stumbled across a publication entitled “Flavor” magazine, an independent, bimonthly publication from Virginia which is not affiliated with any nationally franchised publication (is that a reference to the “edible” publications?).

    Will “Flavor” fill the void?