Carol and Thom Kicinski are a married couple who are used to adjusting the menu. Carol was diagnosed gluten sensitive many years ago, so she had to learn to prepare foods that not only she could eat, but that her husband and family could enjoy as well.
So when they decided to expand their media menu by adding a print magazine to the very successful blog, television appearances and cookbooks that Carol writes and maintains, they knew that they would have to shuffle breakfast to accommodate lunch to save room for dinner and dessert. And do it successfully. Much like Carol did all those years ago when she was devising novel and delicious ways to prepare her gluten free meals.
The new addition to their family fare is Simply Gluten Free Magazine; a print entity that the couple created based on Carol’s blog and has the unique feature of being written, for the most part, by some of the top bloggers in the gluten and allergen free fields today. It’s an ink on paper lifestyle creation that promotes the abundant life that a gluten sensitive person can live. From food, recipes and medical tips – straight from gluten sensitive doctors themselves, to travel, beauty and home tips, Simply Gluten Free encompasses the positive and decries any negative vibes from an issue that is very important in today’s society – having to live a gluten free lifestyle.
So sit back, grab a copy of Simply Gluten Free and follow along on Carol and Thom’s journey into the world of gluten free print. And if you’re not gluten sensitive, no worries, you can still enjoy it. The magazine promises to be delicious and very guilt-free…for anyone.
But first the sound-bites.
On the journey from digital to print: The reason I decided to go from digital to print is first and foremost, no matter how much I love digital, I read magazines. I subscribe to magazines, I buy magazines and I still read my print magazines. And I know a lot of other people who still read magazines.
On the unique content-providers for the print magazine: Carol chose gluten free bloggers to be her writers, not people who were coming to the blog. In other words, these are the top gluten free bloggers that she recruited to be her writers in specific niches within the gluten free community.
On how they handle the pressures of their multimedia business: So what we do and the decisions we make are based on purpose. It was never based on let’s make a whole lot of money and do a magazine. We probably would have never gotten off the ground if that had been the case.
On whether so far it’s been a nightmare or a dream-come-true: It’s been absolutely the fulfillment of a dream for Carol and the fulfillment of a challenge for me. I tend to handle more of the business end and she handles the creative and design end. So it’s turned out to be the magazine she always wanted and it’s given me an interesting and fun business challenge.
And now for the lightly edited transcript for the Mr. Magazine™ Interview with Simply Gluten Free magazine’s Carol and Thom Kicinski.
Samir Husni: Do you think it’s crazy to start a print magazine in this day and age? And what’s the story behind Simply Gluten Free?
Thom Kicinski: My wife was diagnosed gluten sensitive 20 years ago. She raised our two sons and me, who are not gluten sensitive, all during that time period and had to adjust her cooking skills to accommodate her diet and still satisfy us because we wouldn’t buy into the fact that we were going to eat food that “tasted healthy” or had any of that healthy texture to it. We wanted regular food. It sort of forced Carol into a cooking habit of making food that tasted and had the texture of regular food, yet was gluten free, so she wouldn’t get sick every time she would eat it.
In November 2007, Carol started a blog called “simplygluten-free.com” and that blog has now grown to be one of the largest blogs in the world on the gluten free topic. If you go to Google and you simply type in gluten free, you will see right under Wikipedia, which we’ll never beat, and under the Mayo Clinic, which we’ll never beat either, they have way too many topics on health, but right under those two typically always comes up Carol Kicinski and simply gluten-free.com next. And that’s all generated naturally. We’ve done no funky things to get that placement. It’s all been a natural generation as a result of the tremendous content that’s on her website.
She’s posting new recipes pretty much every other, if not every third day. It’s extremely popular. The website receives about 775,000 hits per month and that’s over 25,000 hits per day. And that’s from 150,000 absolute unique visitors per month. That’s people who are counted only once per month for having gone to the site, no matter how many times they revisited it. So you have 150,000 different people per month going to this website. Carol receives over 1,000 emails per day from the website, so she has a lot of traffic.
In 2009 the television show “Daytime TV” discovered Carol and they asked her to start doing gluten free recipes on TV and she’s since become their gluten free chef. She’s been on monthly episodes of the show, which is an NBC-based station and is nationally syndicated to about 97 million TV households per month, and she has the gluten free cooking episode every month. She’s now in her 4th season with that.
She then did a couple of cookbooks due to the many requests she’d had for her recipes. The first one was Simply Gluten Free Desserts and then Simply Gluten Free Quick Meals, which teaches people the most difficult areas of gluten free food preparation, and Simply Gluten Free Desserts is about baking and doing breakfast items and dessert items which are some of the biggest challenges for the gluten free person. And of course, Quick Meals is about how to get gluten free meals quickly onto the dinner table for busy moms with families who are challenged with gluten free sensitivities. That’s Carol’s background and then I’ll let her tell you why she decided last March to do a print magazine.
Samir Husni: Carol, you started with a blog, which put you on the digital side of things, then you moved to television, then books and now the print magazine. Take us through that journey.
Carol Kicinski: With the blog, I had people ask me for recipes and I was always a cook who just threw things in a pan. I never measured anything. I’d say, “Oh, just toss in a couple of handfuls of this and a pinch of that.” I didn’t go to culinary school and I’m not a chef. I’m a home cook, a mom who taught herself everything. So people would ask me for recipes and it was a little bit hard if they weren’t a very good cook themselves. So if I just said throw in a couple handfuls of this, pour in some of that, it wasn’t as specific as they needed. I thought that starting a blog would be a good way to force me to be more specific with my recipes. So I really started the blog to gain a bit more discipline in my recipes and really figure out how to make a recipe that’s workable, regardless of your skill-set.
And I’ve always been fascinated with taking pictures of food. We’d go to Europe and most people would come back with pictures of the Eiffel Tower, or the Coliseum and I’d come back with 42 pictures of cappuccinos. I also thought it would be a good way to force me to improve my photography skills and give me some accountability. I didn’t really know if anyone would go to my blog in the beginning. It was quite a surprise when I started getting comments and meeting people. And then I sort of organically grew.
The television show was a bit of a happenstance. I met the producer of the show at the time and she actually had some experience in dealing with people who were gluten sensitive. She told me that people needed to know about this and they needed to have recipes. She was a little ahead of her time because this was four years ago. So she asked me to come on the show and I did a segment and there was a lot of viewer response. She received a lot of emails, the gluten free community tends to be quite vocal, and then they asked me to come back and do a regular segment.
The cookbooks were also an evolution of the blog. I was approached by an editor at St. Martin’s Press who wondered if I would be interested in doing a book proposal for a cookbook. And I said sure. I didn’t really know what a book proposal was so I Googled it, put something together and there you go.
Thom Kicinski: We’re not very pretentious here.
Samir Husni: That’s the best way of doing anything these days that succeeds.
Carol Kicinski: The reason I decided to go from digital to print is first and foremost, no matter how much I love digital, I read magazines. I subscribe to magazines, I buy magazines and I still read my print magazines. And I know a lot of other people who still read magazines.
And the other thing was I wanted to be able to go out and buy a gluten free lifestyle magazine, not just one that had recipes in it or that talked about the dietary challenges of being gluten free, but one that was a very pretty magazine that felt good in the hands and had great pictures in it. And I was really honestly hoping someone else would do it. I couldn’t find a magazine like that; no one else did do it, so I decided to create one. I brought the idea up to Thom and off we went.
Samir Husni: It’s my understanding that the way you developed the content of the magazine is also unique. Would you tell us a little bit about that?
Thom Kicinski: I’ll prelude it, and then Carol can tell you more. You know most magazines typically evolve from a producer who identifies the niche, hires some writers to write about that niche, then finds some advertisers and the magazine grows. In Carol’s case, what she did was a bit different from the typical. I’ll let her tell you a bit about bloggers first and then we can go into the evolution of how she organized this.
Carol Kicinski: Having been a blogger myself, I’ve come to realize that people trust bloggers and that’s because for the most part they are the people who are, in our case, living a gluten free lifestyle. We’re not people who are finding out about the gluten free lifestyle from a third party perspective and then writing about it. We’re the ones that are facing the challenges in the grocery store and in the kitchen every day, and people tend to trust that. Because of their no-vested interest and the real-life, on-the-ground experience they have with the subject, readers trust bloggers.
And I’m also very connected in the blogging world. And I happen to know a lot of the top gluten and allergen free bloggers. So I thought people would be interested in reading about the lifestyle and making the recipes if they were written by people who are actually living the gluten free lifestyle, and not people who are just writing about it. I organized about 20-25 of the top allergen free bloggers to write articles for each issue.
And because this is a lifestyle magazine and the medical side of gluten free is so important, I contacted three of the top doctors who specialize in gluten sensitivity. I wasn’t interested in doctors who were just studying it; I wanted doctors who were actually treating patients on a daily basis, because they would know how to communicate with the person who’s new to the gluten free diet. So I got three medical doctors who all happened to not only deal with gluten sensitivities, but also followed a gluten free lifestyle themselves, and also a nutritionist to write for us.
We cover the medical and we cover the recipes, but also things like travel and beauty. A lot of people don’t realize that if there’s gluten in products like your moisturizer or makeup and it’s absorbing into your skin, it may be affecting you. So it’s important to highlight that and do it in a fun way so that readers are learning something like how to do a new look.
We have a cocktail section and as I said, we cover travel. Traveling gluten free is sometimes challenging. We do things such as “Do It Yourself” – make your own vanilla extract, how to do gift wrapping, some things not necessarily particular to gluten free, but as a person who was looking for a lifestyle magazine, I think people are interested in a variety of things. We also cover children. I have a writer who writes every issue and she’s a mom dealing with this in the trenches. She gives her perspective and because sometimes there are bumps in the road, she’s very honest.
For the most part the magazine focuses on the celebration of the abundance of a gluten free lifestyle. We like to point out what you can have, what you can eat and what you can enjoy and not focus on the deprivation. And I believe people are really responding to that as well.
Samir Husni: You mentioned that people trust bloggers; do you mean they trust bloggers in a specific community? For example, if they come to the Simply Gluten Free blog, do they trust those bloggers and that content, or do you mean that people trust all bloggers in general? And do you think that by doing the magazine you have validated the blog, the writers and the stories?
Thom Kicinski: Carol chose gluten free bloggers to be her writers, not people who were coming to the blog. In other words, these are the top gluten free bloggers that she recruited to be her writers in specific niches within the gluten free community. For example, one blogger is very prolific on gluten free for children topics, another on gluten free travel, another on doing the Vegan diet gluten free, and another on the Paleo diet and doing it gluten free. She got the top bloggers in their specialty fields and then made them her writers for the magazine.
Samir Husni: If we actually trust bloggers however, are we giving them a shot in the arm when we then do the print magazine based on the bloggers, or based on their contribution? And does that make them more trustworthy? And is there a link between that vast vapor that is the digital word, with the blog and the print magazine now?
Carol Kicinski: According to some survey data that we had, and it asked various questions, such as whom do you go to with certain queries and whose information do you trust, bloggers came up number one. I believe, and this is my opinion, when somebody reads a blog, the person writing it becomes very real to the reader. They form a relationship. Being a blogger myself, I have been contacted numerous times by various magazines to write articles. Now the fact that I am a blogger is not necessarily played up in the other publications, but I just did a twist on what others are doing. So yes, I am validating the fact that these people are those who are on the ground and living the lifestyle and writing about it, and that they are bloggers.
Thom Kicinski: We did a survey on Carol’s website and the magazine’s website for the months of November and December. And one of the questions we asked was where you get your most reliable gluten free information from. They were allowed to pick from three different sources and 90% came in with the internet and bloggers. That was the item chosen, information from the internet and bloggers. And the next one under that, believe it or not, was an in-store shopping experience, and that was 40% who said they got their information while in the supermarket reading labels and looking at the products. And the third one was magazines, and that was 36%, and in fourth position were friends with 32% and 15% said support groups, while surprisingly only 13% said from a doctor. They were getting their most reliable information; they felt, from the internet and bloggers. It was actually 89.7%. So that tells you who they trust.
Samir Husni: So how is the magazine going to change that? I mean after three issues, what was the reaction to the printed magazine?
Carol Kicinski: I think that it just reinforces this. I don’t think that they are mutually exclusive of each other. I read blogs and I buy magazines. Also in our survey, we figured out who the typical gluten free consumer is. And I am smack-dab in the middle. I am the gluten free consumer. And I’m assuming I’m not alone in that. And I buy magazines.
Thom Kicinski: A blogger is very, very real to people. That’s the bottom line. They read bloggers and it’s just like reading about your neighbor or about themselves. Then when you translate and put all of that in a magazine, now you have a magazine full of content that people feel is very friendly to them. It’s not some writer from a third person position writing it; it’s the person themselves in very simple language, very common language, writing to them. And that is, I think, a very key element of the success of the magazine.
Samir Husni: How does a couple in the 21st century today handle this magazine media world? Carol is everywhere. Your name is everywhere…you’re the national sales advertiser, the publisher…how do you two do it? And what advice do you have for other couples or individuals thinking about launching a magazine? Tell me a little bit about the nightmare behind the dream.
Carol Kicinski: I am passionate about what I’m doing. And I love what I’m doing. We work hard and I think that passion is the basis for that.
Thom Kicinski: And Carol is very right. If you back away and look at it, we didn’t start a magazine to make money. There are two purposes in someone’s mind when they’re doing something like this: there’s the purpose to make money, or there’s the purpose to forward a duty or that purpose. If you just make decisions based on making money, I’ve found in life that those things tend to not do so well, because the decisions made sometimes aren’t the right ones. If you tend to make the decisions based on purpose or duty, it usually works out and makes sense.
Carol’s duty and purpose has always been to communicate to the gluten free, Vegan, vegetarian and Paleo diet world and to the other allergen free world, to communicate good solutions and tips, recipes, tricks and a lifestyle that will help them make healthy choices for themselves and their children. That was always her purpose. So what we do and the decisions we make are based on purpose. It was never based on let’s make a whole lot of money and do a magazine. We probably would have never gotten off the ground if that had been the case. The money end of it was scary and quite challenging, as you can guess when you’re starting something like that. But she’s always wanted to offer solutions to people so they could make good decisions that were healthy for themselves and their family. And I think that you have to look at that as the basis.
Samir Husni: So taking all that passion and duty, you launched a magazine. How has it been so far, nightmare or dream-like road trip?
Thom Kicinski: It’s been absolutely the fulfillment of a dream for Carol and the fulfillment of a challenge for me. I tend to handle more of the business end and she handles the creative and design end. So it’s turned out to be the magazine she always wanted and it’s given me an interesting and fun business challenge.
Our first magazine, we targeted to print 15,000 copies, which was modest but significant for a premiere issue of a magazine. I had zero intentions of being able to get into any stores with that issue. When I was selling the advertising, I simply told the advertisers that we would be going to doctor’s offices and of course to our subscribers. I had it all figured out how we would distribute that many issues into those areas.
Well as it turned out, the magazine, before the first issue was even printed in concept form only, happened to hit the vice president and the president’s desk at Ingram and they both said, “Hey, we want this. This is something that we can throw our shoulders behind.” And before we knew it, we were in all Barnes & Noble, all Whole Foods across the United States; we were in Sprouts, Wegmans, and many of the health food stores, overnight.
And as the store orders came in, we ended up having to print 18,000 of that first issue just to satisfy the store orders. And then with the second issue we intended to print 20,000 and we ended up having to print 27,000 because of the store orders. And then we thought we’d print 30,000 for the third issue and we were forced to print 40,000. Now with the fourth issue we were going to do 45,000, but wound up doing almost 52,000 just because the stores had been driving our orders.
Carol did a tremendous job with the beautiful, gorgeous photograph of the turkey on the front of the first issue. It turned out to be just a great holiday issue. As you know, you have to pay up front before the printer even schedules your job. Well, about 3 nights after we had put the whole thing to bed with the printer, I remember sitting straight up in the middle of the night in bed and saying, “Oh my goodness! What if nobody buys it?” Literally I remember saying that, because that’s the one thing that we couldn’t control.
But as it turned out, it was a tremendous success, selling a very high percent of sales. The wholesaler compared it to when TV Guide came out. I asked him, “THE TV Guide?” And he said yes, “THE TV Guide.” And I went wow.
And then when the second issue came out, the first week it was in Whole Foods, and Whole Foods is sort of our bellwether, it tells us how well we’re doing. They have 500-600 stores across the United States, and we know how well we’re doing in all the health food stores based on how well we’re doing in Whole Foods. And they’re a terrific marketplace, of course, for people.
So all of a sudden we get the news that we’re selling in the number 7 position, total mag-volume sales, in all Whole Foods across the United States. That’s against magazines like Real Simple, Vanity Fair, and Psychology Today – the big boys. Here we are with our second issue and we’re asking, “Wow, how is that happening?”
And then the next week after that, we’re selling in 5th position, and the week after that in 5th position again, and with really high percentages. And then the third issue came out, which is the March/April issue and we got the news for the week ending March 8th that in Whole Foods market we were selling in 3rd position.
So it seems to be a success and it’s something that the consumer is definitely picking up off the shelf and reading. The magazine was 80 pages, 80 +4, in its first issue, and now with the fourth issue, which is the May/June 2013 issue, Carol has taken it to a 104 + 4 pages. It’s grown in size and circulation.
Samir Husni: Carol, what do you call yourself? Are you writer, editor, inventor, creator, housewife?
Carol Kicinski: For the magazine, I’m the editor –in- chief.
Samir Husni: Yes, but what would you like people to think about when they think about Carol?
Carol Kicinski: I think the truth of the matter is, as a skill-set, I’m a recipe developer. Whether I do it at home, for the magazine, or for the blog, that’s what I do. I make recipes, gluten free recipes.
Thom Kicinski: She’s a creator. She’s very modest. In all the years that we’ve been married, and you can imagine all the meals that she’s put on the dinner table for me and the kids when they were growing up, because we were a family that always ate dinner, every single night, and I could count on one hand the amount of times she ever repeated a recipe in our entire lifetime together. She was and is always doing something new.
Sometimes we would invite other people over and I would ask, “Honey, what are you going to make for dinner tonight?” and she would say, “Well, I’m making this, this and that.” And I would say, “Well, you’ve made that before, right?” And she would say, “No, not really.” And I would return with, “What do you mean, you’re trying a new dish? Tonight’s kind of important, you know?” And she would assure me that it would be fine and that’s the way she’s always been.
So you might ask her what she is and she’ll say a recipe developer. But if you ask me the same question, I’ll say, greater than that, she’s a creator. She’s always creating something new.
Samir Husni: Carol, how would you define Thom?
Carol Kicinski: I tell people, I’m the beauty and he’s the brains. I think I have vision and I can think of how I want something to be. For example, the magazine, I can envision it in my mind’s eye and Thom is the genius who can take that and turn it into fruition. He can figure out anything and he can drive anything through, from concept-stage to completion.
Samir Husni: Now Thom, how would you define yourself?
Thom Kicinski: Well, I think, coming back down to earth off of genius for a second; Carol had a purpose and a goal to do things, and she did. She’s always had her purposes and goals, and that is her driving force. And it became both of our driving force in business. But you have to provide enough of a financial platform so you can accomplish those purposes and goals. In other words, you can say we’re in this for the purpose or the goal of getting out correct information into people’s hands, but you still have to pay some attention to the money end of it. You don’t make your driving decisions based on money, but you’ve got to make correct decisions so that you do have the wherewithal to provide the platform to then be able to forward the purpose. And that’s probably what I am the best at doing.
Samir Husni: What keeps you up at night?
Carol Kicinski: For me it’s always concern. For instance, if I do a cover, like the cover of the magazine that we just put to bed, I really like it and I’m happy with it. But then I ask myself, “OK, but how is the next one going to be better?”
Thom Kicinski: What keeps me up at night is very simple; when she decided to do this project, I was already working a 10-12 hour day with the website and all her other ventures that she had going. So in order to make room for the magazine, I had to start my workday world at 1-2 a.m. So that literally does keep me up. I get about 6 hours of work in before anybody else comes to work and I can then handle the daily traffic of the day, but during that early morning time is when I can accomplish things.
Samir Husni: Thank you.