Joanna Saltz: Editorial Director of Delish and House Beautiful on Taking Chances

Who loves to eat? (Let’s visualize many hands going up in the air.) Now, who loves to cook? (Let’s visualize only a few hands still raised.) Chances are, for many of us, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Enter Delish – a hugely popular digital brand that speaks to those of us who aren’t so savvy in the kitchen. Better yet, the brand’s website doesn’t just appeal to non-chefs, but it sparks to our appetites too as it encourages its 25 million readers to do one thing: eat like every day’s the weekend.

One of the driving forces – and faces! – behind Delish is Joanna Saltz, who serves as editorial director overseeing the site’s recipes and video tutorials. And most recently, she serves as the author of the brand’s just-released cookbook, Delish: Eat Like Every Day’s The Weekend, which features more than 300 mouthwatering recipes for kitchen novices.

In today’s interview Joanna discusses how she went from serving as an editor for other brands, including The Knot and Seventeen Magazine, to envisioning and creating the ultimate digital destination for foodies everywhere. And she’s doing it with results! Prior to publication of this interview, Joanna was promoted to become the editorial director of House Beautiful, too. Could she be the everyday Martha Stewart? Read on and decide for yourself.

How would you describe Delish to our readers who may not have been lucky enough to discover it yet?

You’ll hear me say this over and over again: We’re a food brand for people who love to eat more than they love to cook. We create recipes and content that’s meant for sharing, and we’re not interested in slaving over the stove, or anything that’s too precious. We want to talk and laugh about food; we want to give you inspo for dinner tonight and cocktails this weekend, but we also want you to be okay grabbing Chipotle tomorrow.

Clearly people are into it– we get 25 million visitors a month, and over 500 million video views. We really just want people to gather around and dig in.

With so many incredible recipes, a cookbook was bound to happen! We’re excited to see the launch of the Delish cookbook. How long did the process take from idea to publication? What was that process like? And how did you possibly narrow down from so many recipes?

When we relaunched Delish three and a half years ago, we were just a small group of 6 people – and there was this massive food media space that was so crowded. We really worked to create a brand that sounded and felt different than anything that was out there. But we also knew that if we wanted to have credibility, we needed a cookbook. So, a little over a year ago, we wrote a proposal for Eat Like Every Day’s The Weekend and, thankfully, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt jumped at it.

The development stage was crazy – we wanted the book to include some of our favorite and most popular recipes, but also a ton of new ones. So, we figured out which ones felt really close to the DNA of the brand, and then we dreamed up others that our audience would go crazy for (like Reuben Egg Rolls … they’re SO DELICIOUS). We definitely went too far – I think the book was 20 pages over, originally. And cutting down the recipes was IMPOSSIBLE – as we were cutting, we were making ourselves feel better by saying, “Okay, fine, we’ll save it for the next book!”

The cookbook itself is hefty – 3 pounds and 416 pages of pure delicious inspiration. Out of every recipe, which one is your favorite and why?

Ugh, this is like picking a favorite child. I loved every recipe in this thing. But I’m a sweets person, so I am particularly OBSESSED with the dessert chapter. I think my favorite recipe in there is the Cookiedilla. The whole concept feels so intrinsically Delish: It’s a familiar food, but done in a totally crazy way with ingredients that are easy to find. And the end result is something you want to take a picture of and tear into. It’s just the perfect storm of amazingness.

As you mentioned, Delish is for people who love to eat more than they love to cook. With that in mind, how do you decide what makes a recipe simple enough for us foodies who aren’t super-chefs? How does a recipe make the cut to be featured on your site?

I hate anything that’s fussy, that requires special tools, or involves ingredients that are hard to find. So, I generally try to make sure that we stick to those rules. But that also speaks to the whole principle of our videos – we want to show it from a first-person perspective so that it looks like YOU can do it.

You made the pivot to Delish after a long career working in print magazines. What inspired you to take on this new opportunity?

I knew I wanted my next step to be a digital-based position, and when Hearst decided to revamp Delish and was looking for a site director, I went for it. I really felt like there was so much potential to create something new and different; and I felt like we’d be given autonomy to build something amazing. And that’s exactly what happened: We were allowed to experiment and make crazy stuff, and we gained an audience. My deputy editor Lindsay Funston, my director of content operations Lindsey Ramsey, and I talk about it all the time: If we weren’t given the room to grow and fail, we don’t know if Delish would be what it is today.

What similarities does your role now have to your days working at a magazine? What is different?

I love to create content. I see content EVERYWHERE. I’m annoying about it. When I was in fully in print, I lived for packages. I loved thinking of a story idea and then coming at it from different perspectives. So that’s really the same. At Delish, we like to look at everything through all of the lenses. (I think we’ve approached pickles from 300 angles at this point.) What’s different, as everyone will tell you, is the pace and the engagement. When you’re in magazines, you put something out and you don’t get any immediate feedback. In digital, there’s this really beautiful dance with the audience: We put something up, the people respond, you learn something new and you make it better next time.

Joanna Saltz in Delish mode - I Want Her Job

Your team has also grown since you joined Delish. What qualities do you look for in those you hire? What makes a candidate really stand out to you?

PASSION. Do you feel something for this brand? Do you feel something for this reader? Can you connect with the content you’re creating? Experience is great – I love people with knowledge and vision. But you have to have that drive. I like to think I can sense it in people. I don’t actually know if that’s true.

When others ask you for advice about how to get a job like yours, what question do they most often ask you? And please tell us the advice you share with them too!

People always ask me how I got my job. There are days I wonder how I even got here! I was supposed to be a music teacher. I was a violist and I was being formally trained in music education. A few years in, I realized that that wasn’t what I wanted, so I started writing for my college paper, and I ended up becoming a journalist.

But what I always tell people is that you have to be enterprising. You have to assume that no one wants to give you a chance – that no one wants to give you permission. I got where I am because, over and over, I raised my hand and shouted, “I CAN DO THAT! LET ME TRY!” When I was an assistant right out of school and the position above me opened, I had to stand up and yell that. And then, after years of working, when I became an established editor at established brands, I STILL had to stand up and yell that. Even to this day, I’m still taking chances and trying to prove myself. Sometimes I don’t even raise my hand – I just go and try it, and prepare to apologize later.

What is a trend in the food or food/online space that excites you?

I’m excited about events – bringing Delish food out into the world and seeing people respond to it in real time. In 2019, we’re launching Delish’s Hidden Dinners, which will be a series of pop-up experiences in the most random, fun places. Everyone’s doing activations right now, so it’s kind of cliché, but I can’t wait to actually engage with our audience and get in-the-moment reactions to the things we create.

As someone who constantly needs to create fresh content and ideas, what sources do you turn to for inspiration? What do you do when you feel a lack of inspiration?

I’m not someone who goes searching for inspiration – that feels like you’re watching a pot waiting for it to boil. My antennae is just up all the time. My favorite place to go is the mall. Seriously. I like walking around and seeing what people are eating, what they’re buying, what’s on sale or what’s not selling. I like feeling connected to the rest of the country in that way. Everyone says it, but we do live in a bubble in New York. The fanciest new restaurants and shops open here, but meanwhile, America is eating Auntie Anne’s. I need to remind myself that people want Funfetti, not kimchi … or that yes, Yankee Candle DOES need 12 different pumpkin-themed candles because America is THAT obsessed. The mall is great for those kinds of epiphanies, and I always end up leaving with some insane idea.

What is an aspect of your job that might surprise someone?

Sometimes, those recipes videos are made with my hands. Not really as much anymore, but there was a stretch when I was actually bringing some of those recipes to life. My favorite was the football dip, which is in the cookbook. I didn’t have any expectation that that recipe would work out, but it totally did. And when that video killed, I thought I was like the king of the universe. Our senior food editor, Lauren Miyashiro, and our food editor, Lena Abraham, bring our videos to life now. They’re so amazing and efficient at it.

What is something you want to learn more about?

I would love to learn more about consumer revenue, and how our brands can get better at it. I also wish I could learn video editing. My team is fantastic at it, and I have no idea what they’re doing.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think it’s important to be okay at failing. I really like winning, but at some point I realized that if you’re always trying to win, you’re never trying to learn. When we started Delish, we had the luxury of playing like we had nothing to lose because we had no audience, no brand awareness. But ultimately, I think that’s why we grew as fast as we did: We took chances that maybe we wouldn’t have felt comfortable taking if we were afraid to fail.

After Hours graphic

I’d love to have coffee with:

Joanna Gaines. Just, like, how in the world did she become this thing?

The books on my nightstand are:

Magazines, lol. I try to read O, The Oprah Magazine, Country Living and Popular Mechanics every month.

My current favorite saying, or mantra, is:

Use criticism as fuel and you’ll never run out of energy.

My favorite way to spend my day off is:

Going for a morning run, a bit of shopping at an antique mall, baking something with my daughter (probably banana bread, if she has her way), a latte in the afternoon, and then a pizza dinner with my family in front of the fire. And then hitting Dairy Queen for dessert.

One lesson I’ve learned lately is:

It’s okay to be afraid. Fear can be a great motivator.

I can’t live without:

My family, my Apple Watch, my Diet Cokes.

I feel my best when:

There’s a challenge in front of me.

What I always tell people is that you have to be enterprising. You have to assume that no one wants to give you a chance – that no one wants to give you permission. I got where I am because, over and over, I raised my hand and shouted, “I CAN DO THAT! LET ME TRY!”