Q&A With John-Bryan Hopkins (Foodimentary)
We sat down with the Foodimentary founder to discuss his take on food holidays, social media strategy, and more.
Have you celebrated National Donut Day? National Ranch Dressing Day? National Pineapple Upside-Down Cake Day?
If so, you can thank John-Bryan Hopkins for that. The Birmingham resident is the man responsible for a lot, if not most, of the food holidays you hear so much about. He founded the Foodimentary site in 2005, and since then has helped popularize food holidays that you hear about every day. An early adopter in the food media space, today Foodimentary has 856,000 Twitter followers, and continues to influence conversations around food and its origins in the social space.
Later this year, John-Bryan’s first book will be published. We sat down to talk with him about the evolution of his brand, the pervasiveness of food holidays in marketing, and the value of being an outsider.
How did Foodimentary start? I’m an interior designer by training, and worked in Birmingham and taught in Birmingham for more than a decade. In 2005, I was at a point in my life where I was thinking about doing something different, and was taking with some friends one night about ideas. I wanted to do something about how we talk about food — not necessarily recipes or cooking stories.
I said the word, ‘Foodimentary’ and a light bulb went on. We rushed to the laptop to see who already was using that word and it hadn’t been used — I was so surprised. I had created a word. Foodimentary lets me explore the origins of food. I started the site and a Twitter account.
You started using Twitter early, and set yourself apart in that space. Tell us about that. When I started, there wasn’t really social media. There was blogging, and a lot of bad blogging. I got on Twitter when In 2007, Twitter was this slow poke of an entity. Links would die; it often didn’t let you upload a photograph. I learned to create simple language that people would want to share. I got lucky to be part of it during the early years — I think that’s why people gave us so much attention. No one else was really doing what we were doing.
How did you get the idea to write about food holidays? Food holidays go back to the World Wars. I started doing food holidays because I’m interested in origin stories. Everything has an origin. When I started, there were about 175 food holidays on the calendar. Then I started making more up. When I started writing about food holidays there was an immediate response that people wanted it. Within three months. I’d won the first ever Shorty Awards for Food Communication.
The holidays are like my children. But if I don’t like one, I just change it.
Tell us about your typical day? How do you go about creating food holidays? I wake up at 6 a.m. and take a look at all the data and metrics, and the food communication of the day — usually what people are talking about in relation to that day’s food holiday. I usually get up from my laptop after the coffee runs out at 9:30. From 11-3 I analyze the day’s work, and look toward the next day. I update the site and participate on social. I don’t schedule any of my Tweets, which is different than how a lot of people do it. I watch it all day long. I have the main Foodimentary account, 10 Twitter accounts for specific foods, Facebook, Instagram. I have a real passion for Pinterest too, and use Google Plus as well, because it helps with the search rankings.
Since then, it seems like everyone has gotten on the food holiday bandwagon. Can you speak to that? There are a lot of people out there and creating food holidays. People say that there are too many, and I say, ‘People, calm down. It’s about celebrating food.’ I’m never in the way of someone creating a day. Anyone can do it.
What strengthened me and helped me feel comfortable in my skin as the Foodimentary guy is when two years ago, Google used my calendar to create their food holiday calendar. Once that happened I knew I’d done what I had set out to do.
This year I’m working to help make a distinction that will help everyone out: using “National” in front of a food holiday to signify it’s a countrywide celebration. “National” means it’s a call to arms.
As an early adopter in the food social media space, how did you set yourself apart? I got so lucky and was in the right place at the right time. I started this little blog, and kept working, and got up every day to keep doing it. I figured out the message and kept putting it out. Now there are so many platforms, so much to consider. I think it would be tough to start out now.
“The [food] holidays are like my children. But if I don’t like one, I just change it.”
You’re an example of someone who has achieved success outside traditional media. Can you speak to that? I say, ‘Always be an outsider.’ That’s part of my success. I didn’t go after attention, but it happened; Foodimentary been in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, named in the top Twitter accounts by Time Magazine. I’ve been through a lot of phases with Foodimentary to discover what it really is. I know what it’s not, and it’s not about me. I’m not the brand. When it becomes about you, not the message, that is a problem.
I discovered this over the course of many experiences, including shooting a pilot for the Food Network. I was thrilled to be asked, but didn’t have it in me.
I look up to Christopher Kimbell (who founded the ad-free Cooks Illustrated) and had some conversations with him early on. I felt like I wanted to be like him — the person who moves with the times. You might see him on television occasionally, but that’s not the goal.
Tell us about your upcoming book (“Foodimentary: Celebrating 365 Food Holidays,” to be published November 1). The book tells origins stories of food through 365 days, including classic recipes and food with a twist. It allowed me to go deep into food origins and give more than the 140 characters of Twitter. It’s still written to be quick and informative. I think it will define Foodimentary, but won’t pigeonhole me.
As an Alabama native, do you have a special affinity for Southern food? I remember when I did an NPR interview about eight years ago and said I believe the Southern food movement was going to be a big thing, and people still didn’t quite see it. Now everyone is talking about Southern food. Southern food doesn’t need me!
The only Southern food that I absolutely love is tomato aspic and I have it once a week at Gilchrist. I’m so glad that that place exists. And no one writes about it.
Do you cook? Why would I do that? There’s someone else to do that. (Laughs).
What are your parting words on food marketing in 2017? The next generation knows a lot about food—they are smart. They can tell when they are being sold something, and they don’t want to be sold. So you need to find another way to tell your story.