How to Build a Food Blogging Career from Scratch

It’s been years since I wrote a post about food blogging! Right now, in 2019, I’m in my 8th year of food blogging and as I sit back and reflect over this time, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude that this has been my path. That we both show up, influence, and inspire each other in the kitchen. This baking community is not only what I’ve built, it’s what I cherish. In a world that seems increasingly negative each day, how incredible that you and I are connected through something that brings us so much joy: baking. If you weren’t here, none of this would be possible. Thank you. So much.

That being said, I want to bounce off last year’s Sprinkled series where I shared a behind-the-scenes look into my everyday work. I receive a lot of questions about my career path and I’m happy to share this crazy food blogging roller coaster experience with you!

This post is divided in 6 different sections:

  1. Don’t Start a Food Blog for Money
  2. Talent is Not the Key to Success (and what is)
  3. Grow Your Audience
  4. The Blogging Shift
  5. SEO
  6. How Do Food Bloggers Make Money

And when you’re finished reading each, check out my other blogging posts. In the past week, I updated most of them with new information, including my Food Photography Basics page!

Don’t Start a Food Blog for Money

Build your product before selling it. Do not focus on the money.

When I started Sally’s Baking Addiction, it wasn’t to earn money. In fact, very few people earned an income from blogging back then. I started a little hobby blog so I could share recipes with my friends and family. That was the purpose: a love for baking. During that year, I realized that I could begin to earn money for the work I publish. After 8 months, I received my first paycheck: $80!

Fast forward 7 years and I’m still doing what I love: baking. I’ve also picked up two more passions along the way: food photography and blogging. And these are the reasons I’m still doing it today. Because I genuinely LOVE it. And, what’s more, when I hear from YOU that my recipe was part of your Christmas dessert, Thanksgiving meal, son’s 1st birthday, wedding, or Sunday morning breakfast– it’s just more fuel to keep this fire burning.

It takes a lot of long hours, concentration, sweat, blood (ouch! oven burn!), and tears, but at the heart of it, if there’s passion there… if you truly love it… none of it feels like work. It’s just… 2nd nature. It’s what you do.

Talent is Not the Key to Success

You don’t need any sort of background talent or secret skill to start a food blog. When I first hit publish in 2011, I had never picked up a fancy camera before, never wrote professionally, never owned a business, never wrote a book, and knew nothing about website coding (still don’t). I was a regular 20-something in a 9-5 job at a financial firm. But I had passion and grit– and I believe both are the secret to food blogging success.

  • What is passion? Passion is an intense love for something.
  • What is grit? Grit means courage, endurance, strength, and determination. The willingness to work your tail off doing something you love. And I don’t say that lightly. I mean literally work harder than everyone else you know… combined.

Passion counts for something, but effort counts twice. It’s absolutely crazy how much work goes into this blog. And I’m not saying that to brag, I’m telling you that I didn’t build this overnight. I’ve worked on it every single day since December 11th, 2011. Every day. And if I told you I spend over 50 *working* hours on ONE blog post– I bet you’d be shocked! (Recipe testing, dishes, photography but only on a sunny day, re-shooting it because I didn’t like batch #1 of photos, editing the photos, videos, writing the recipe, writing the blog post, scheduling on social.) It’s just… a lot!

Think about starting any other job. On your first day, you have no clue what you’re doing… right? You’re new. As the days, weeks, months, and years go on, you learn a little something. We all have to start at the bottom and that’s no different for food blogging. You just have to be willing to work really damn hard. Practice makes progress.

When I was growing up, my dad always said “work hard and be irreplaceable”. And it’s always stuck with me. Stand out from others and show your worth.

Don’t be the best, be the only.

Grow Your Audience

Here are two crucial ways to grow your audience:

  1. Be consistent. Whether that means posting every single day or 1x a week. I don’t care if your blog is called Super Cute Pictures of My Dog (lol!) and you post 1 super cute picture of your dog everyday– as long as you show up consistently, people will know what to expect and will likely stick around. It builds trust.
  2. Post quality content. This works off of #1. While it’s important to show up regularly so readers know when to expect you, it’s not the quantity of content you produce. You could publish a new blog post every single hour, but if it’s not quality content– who’s going to read it? Here is my entire blog post about quality content.

Many other factors play into this and the reality is that growing a following doesn’t happen overnight. Work on your food photography (people eat with their eyes!), let your personality shine (isn’t it nice reading a blog post that feels like a one-on-one conversation?), be kind, and solve problems. These guarantee you’ll eventually find your flock.

The Blogging Shift

Food blogging’s changed… drastically… over the past 8 years. What used to be an online diary and simple way to connect with others has shifted into an online conglomerate. Most food blogs are now recipe websites where there’s recipe ratings, reviews, and search engine rankings. SEO (search engine optimization) is heavily valued and not to be taken lightly, even though where we end up in search rankings isn’t really in our control. Frustrating. Email marketing can be a beast. To the average eye, food photography outshines text but video rules all. Most internet users skim, so visually friendly text is preferred. There’s now Pinterest, Facebook pages, Facebook groups, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Instagram stories, and IGTV. Managing social media is like having a 2nd blog!

The blogging world is constantly changing and it can be exhausting trying to keep up. You don’t have to change how you run your blog, but in order to stay relevant, you must be willing to adapt to the revolving world wide web.

Today, bloggers have to wear so many hats– photography, food styling, editing, videography, writing, cooking, baking, time managing, website managing– and the reality is that it can feel very heavy. When it begins to feel unmanageable, my advice is to (1) hire help and/or (2) step back and choose your priorities. I had a major turning point after my daughter was born and quickly realized that working 24/7 wouldn’t cut it anymore. Priorities shift– it’s a fact of life. Stick to what you love and know.

I absolutely LOVE testing recipes, so most of my time is spent in the kitchen. Food photography is a close 2nd, so you can usually find me behind the camera and editing photos. I’m not the biggest fan of video because it’s super stressful and time consuming, but I feel video is important to the content I produce– like showing how to shape croissants or how I decorate a cake. Since it’s not my favorite, I only spend 1-2 days per month shooting videos. My assistants help me with things that don’t necessarily need to be “me” such as testing a recipe in their own kitchens, PR emails, brand contracts, organizing giveaways, adding tags to posts, scheduling on social media and Pinterest, adding links to blog posts, organizing photos, etc. Lots of little things make up the business.

Speaking of SEO…

I want to preface this section by admitting that I am NOT an expert on SEO and there are thousands of other bloggers who understand much more than I do about search rankings, but let me share the small bit of knowledge I have. This is a very amateur explanation and if you have any questions… ask a search engine or a pro because I likely won’t know the answer!! SEO (search engine optimization) is a practice you can apply to the way you deliver your online content. For a food blogger, applying SEO friendly practices to your blog posts can help them rank higher in search results. Search engines see your optimized content and think “hey, this person is an expert on the subject so they should be ranked higher.” This means more website traffic and if that’s your goal– awesome! What I don’t enjoy about formatting posts to be SEO friendly is that it can remove the personality from the blog posts. SEO friendly posts should load fast, include headers, lists, keywords, and concise information on the subject. Driving traffic to my blog is one of my goals, but so is connecting with readers. I try to find a balance between informational (SEO friendly) and personal (connecting with readers).

Here are a few resources I use for SEO (not sponsored):

  1. SEMrush: I literally only use this to see how my keywords rank. I had no idea it existed until the blogger retreat I joined last year. It’s a really cool paid service with so much available to members, but I don’t have time (or understanding) for most of this stuff!!!
  2. Google Trends: I use this to determine which keywords people are searching for. For example, “vanilla cake recipe” or “homemade vanilla cake.” You can compare to see which search is more popular.
  3. Answer The Public: Sort of like Google Trends. You can type in a keyword and this program populates which questions people are asking on it. For example, type in “banana muffins.” You will see people ask “how to make banana muffins moist” and you can make sure you answer that question in your blog post.

Food Photography

Oh, this beast! Here is my completely updated Food Photography Basics page.

Top of a vanilla cake

How Do Food Bloggers Make Money?

If you’re publishing free content, how can you earn money? There are plenty of ways to make money from food blogging and each depend on how you want to run your business.

Here are a few:

  1. Display Advertising
  2. Brand Sponsorships
  3. Affiliate Commissions
  4. Selling a Product, eBooks, or Cookbooks

I list display advertising as #1 because that’s the majority of my income and it also pays for website hosting, email hosting, my staff, groceries, equipment, photography props, monthly tech support, domain renewal, advertising campaigns, workshops, blogging conferences, among other business expenses. My advice with regards to the amount of display ads is to always remember that user experience makes or breaks user loyalty.

Working with brands can also earn you a paycheck, but this goes back to how you want to run your business. I don’t work with a lot of brands and that’s just my business choice. Publishing organic content, on my own terms, is really important. Not saying that working with brands can’t be a natural fit– it totally can and other bloggers do this VERY well– I just prefer to keep my annual brand partnerships to a limited number. Do you. (I am not an expert on working with or reaching out to brands so I’m a really bad example here!)

You can also sell a product or recommend a product. For example, I use Silpat baking mats on my baking sheets all the time. I created an affiliate link to this product through Amazon and include the link in some of my recipes. I don’t work with this brand, but I will happily endorse their product. I earn a very small amount from this product recommendation at no extra cost to the buyer. Like, a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a penny… but it can add up! Selling or recommending a product should not be overseen; it’s a method of earning money that also provides value to your audience. That’s big.

A lot of food bloggers/food photographers/food videographers can earn money from photographing/video shooting for other bloggers or brands. Isn’t that incredible? Reach out to brands or bloggers you love and offer your food photography or videography services.

The BEST profiteroles with homemade choux pastry and decadent chocolate ganache. Fill the airy choux pastry shells with your favorite ice cream. Homemade pate a choux recipe on sallysbakingaddiction.com

Ok, I think that’s it…? I really hope this has been helpful for you! If you’re craving more posts about blogging, I recently updated each of the following:

More Food Blogging Advice

Thank you for being here! xo

86 Comments

  1. I so admire and respect you Sally! Your blog is beautiful and your recipes are always good. I work on a crafting blog, and I get burned out on the SEO and trying to build the traffic to get the ad placement. Even having a small blog is quite expensive, so I would like for it to pay for itself someday and put a little something back in my pocket! Craft supplies don’t grow on trees. LOL! Thanks for sharing your story. I know how hard you work, and you deserve every success.

  2. Great post, Sally! I’m new to your blog—discovered you via the iced oatmeal cookie recipe over the holidays—and boy, were they GOOD! Your attention to detail and your audience is excellent. Happy to be a new follower!

  3. Sally you’re the best! Love this post and all the behind-the-scenes posts! Thank you for being so genuine and accessible!

  4. I don’t really comment on blogs (more of the silent, faithful reader type) nor do I have any interest in creating one but I just have to say that you are the hardest working food blogger I’ve come across. You post consistently without taking long, mysterious breaks. You worked your butt off before your daughter was born to have plenty of posts throughout your maternity leave and even after her birth you STILL come up with quality content without missing a beat. It’s obvious you test these recipes multiple times (I can tell you’re the perfectionist type) and I can’t stress how nice it is to know I can rely on your recipes. I’ve truly had better outcomes with your recipes than the most “famous of famous” food bloggers (though you’re getting up there yourself!). You give this job the respect it deserves by treating it like your career – not a hobby, which I believe is the mistake many other bloggers make. Oh, and it is SO appreciated how your sponsored posts are few and far between, and the few you do work with are brands I actually seen you use. I admire the respect you have for your readers’ time, your recipes, and your family. You do all of the above so, so well, all while being a mother.

    Just wanted you to know you’re doing a really great job.

    1. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing your kind words! They mean so much to me- and connecting with readers like you is simply amazing. I’m thrilled that you’ve had great success with my recipes! Thank you for your loyal readership! Hope you have a great weekend 🙂

  5. Sally you are my most favorite ever! You are the only food blog I read on a consistent basis and I always check your recipes first, even for savory ones. You bring so much joy to my life. Thank you for your commitment and everything you do!

    Do you have a model of Kitchen Aid mixer that you think works best? I’m replacing mine (yay!) after losing it in the Camp Fire and would love to hear your opinion

  6. I love your blog and all of your cookbooks! I’m interested in starting my own baking business one day, and have started a blog as well. I started it for fun, like you said you did at first. I’m starting out by just posting about other people’s work and me trying to bake those things. Since this is purely for myself at the moment, I’m using only the free website stuff, since…I don’t want to spend too much money. When you started your website, did you do all the fancy premium stuff or like, create a completely new thing?

  7. What a beautiful and honest post Sally! I really love the way you broke down every step and made the journey look so seamless, though I totally understand the amount of work it takes to be there. I look at your blog everyday 🙂 and the recipes are simply divine. I wish tonnes of success and hope you keep up this fantastic blog ever!!

    1. Thank you SO much! I’m able to continue this career path because of this amazing community. Thank you for all the continued and uplifting support!

  8. Hi Sally. I have been following you for a long time and love reading your blog posts. Thank you so much for sharing this information and shedding some light on the process. Your recipes are AMAZING!! I don’t think there is one that I have not loved and I have tried many. Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re a huge inspriation to wannabes like me:)

  9. Sally, this is such an honest and beautifully written article! I’m a longtime follower of your blog (though I rarely post comments) and I just wanted to tell you that I’ve made 30+ of your recipes and they’ve all turned out brilliantly — which is a rare success rate for a food blog! I won’t mention the names of some of the other food blogs I originally followed 10+ years ago, but often their recipes didn’t turn out, and I started to notice that many of the comments they received weren’t “I made your sugar cookies, and they were delicious!” but rather “your sugar cookie recipe looks amazing — can’t wait to try it!” and then a link to their own blog below that. 🙁 I remember that when I initially found your blog after a Google search on how to make a giant monster cookie, what impressed me so much and convinced me to give your recipe a try was how many people made your recipe and took the time to write how well it actually turned out. Ever since that first “Sally” recipe, I’ve been hooked, and pretty much my entire Pinterest dessert page is Sally recipes. My husband will often hear me say upon baking a new dessert recipe, “It’s a Sally, and she’s never let me down!” And indeed, my entire holiday dessert spreads are typically “Sallys”. 🙂 Sorry to be so long winded…but from the bottom of my heart, and from one baking lover to another, THANK YOU for all you do, and for providing me and all of your readers such joy and success in the kitchen!

  10. Hi Sally, re-reading this post..mostly because I wanted to understand why so many food blogs these days are losing personality, repeating content, and/or starting to read in the same voice as other blogs.

    I understand staying relevant in this industry; a blog = business = livelihood. But THANK YOU for not losing the balance between being a Google all-star and putting yourself out there with expertly crafted recipes.

    Thank you for maintaining such a GENUINE, trusted blog… (and still the best brownie recipe on the Internet. Why do I even bother auditioning new ones?…since I always come back to THIS home base 😉 )

    1. Thank you so much for these incredibly kind words! So sweet! I really appreciate it and I’m glad you love those homemade brownies. They’re my favorite too!

  11. Hi Sally! I love this blog ! I have just started blogging in Trinidad, which is a very small island. I started mainly because I love cooking and baking….and people are always asking me questions for recipes, or how do you get the time to… So I decided to start a blog to address some of these. Since starting, some people have approached me to feature their product in my blog and was wondering how to go about doing that. I value all your tips!! So thank you so much!

    1. Congratulations on your new venture! You can see my thoughts on brand sponsorships under #2 of How Do Food Bloggers Make Money. It’s a very personal decision!

  12. Hey Sally, thanks for the informative and honest post! Food blogging has been an idea I’ve had on the back burner for a while so this is just the motivator I needed.

    One question I have is how do you go about your recipe developing/testing?

    Take care, and thanks for the excellent recipes!

    1. Hi Brandon! It’s a wonderfully rewarded career. For testing– there’s no formal process I follow, but I always test my recipes at least 3 times. I have scheduled “kitchen days” where I’m usually working on 2-3 recipes at once. If a recipes comes out perfect the first time (it usually doesn’t!), then I’ll test it one more time before it’s made again for photography and video. All the test recipes are eaten at some point, usually by friends, family, neighbors, my freezer (ha!). My baking days are based around our social calendar so I have somewhere to bring test recipes. If they are true recipe flops that are ruined (trust me, there are lots of those!), they are tossed. It all comes with trial and error.

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I’m Sally, a cookbook author, photographer, and blogger. My goal is to give you the confidence and knowledge to cook and bake from scratch while providing quality recipes and plenty of pictures. Grab a cookie, take a seat, and have fun exploring! more about Sally

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