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Cuisine Noir: From A Website To A Printed Magazine, And A Brand Where African American Culinary Talents Shine – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Sheree Williams, Publisher & Editor In Chief, Cuisine Noir Magazine…

June 23, 2017

A Mr. Magazine™ Launch Story…

“Also, I love, but just can’t compete with, in some instances, Essence and Black Enterprise and Ebony. They all have forty plus years on me. I’m a newbie in the game. So, there are some challenges there in terms of the advertising dollars and things like that. But, we continue to move forward. I have a wonderful staff of different people around the world, and we continue to believe in the project, what we’re doing and telling the stories that we tell; the stories of some of the heroes that are in these industries that are not necessarily featured in some other publications. That really keeps us going. Unfortunately, there is no walk in a rose garden, but we’re just excited to be able to be in the space and tell the stories that we are able to tell.” Sheree Williams…

Cuisine Noir debuted in the world of cyberspace in 2007, setting a precedent by featuring the talents of African American culinary and wine professionals. The online entity tapped into the world of African American foodies and became a vehicle for showcasing these great chefs from the industry.

In 2009, Sheree Williams took the lead with the website and began to show that not only did African Americans like to experiment with different flavors and food cultures, they also loved traveling, wine and the entire scope of the foodie lifestyle. Sheree raised the bar even more when she took the pixels from the screen and transposed them to the printed page with vibrant life and amazing vision.

I spoke with Sheree recently and we talked about Cuisine Noir and the multicultural message the magazine strives to convey with every page. Showcasing what African Americans are doing around the globe is a cultural movement and Sheree is determined to passionately continue the magazines mission.

From celebrities who are just as at home in the kitchen as they are onscreen or onstage, to unsung heroes who know more about mixing ingredients and producing amazing flavors than they do holding a mike or reading a movie line, Cuisine Noir is the platform that encourages both factions. And shows that African Americans have influence throughout the worlds of food and travel around the globe.

I hope that you enjoy this very “tasty” Mr. Magazine™ interview with a woman who knows a thing or two about food, wine and travel, but more importantly, about the passion it takes to put that knowledge to the test, inside the pages of a magazine, Sheree Williams, publisher, editor in chief, Cuisine Noir magazine.

But first, the sound-bites:

On the genesis of Cuisine Noir: I always tell everyone that I didn’t start the magazine. A different chef who is in California started it in the late ‘90s. He’s a chef down in L.A. and just wanted to get more exposure to black chefs. I connected with him in 2007 and, at that time, he had introduced the concept to me. So, we worked together to launch it [the Cuisine Noir site]. Then in 2008, I took it over because he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with it.

On whether everything went as she expected, or there were some bumps along the way: I’m sure you know how tough the magazine industry is. We still face that challenge, you know, being a multicultural publication, in terms of dollar allocation. Before, a lot of advertising agencies would have pockets of money just for multicultural initiatives, whether it was black, Latino, Asian, etcetera. Now we’re finding a lot of the agencies are rolling those dollars into the general market and not having that pot anymore, so it is tough.

On whether Cuisine Noir’s platform is about promoting famous chefs or discovering hidden talents: Well, we go in and out. I’ve personally had the honor of speaking to Dr. Maya Angelou; that was an awesome interview that I was able to do. With her two books that she had out, she was all about cooking and entertaining. We’ve interviewed Russell Simmons and Wendy Williams, so we do try and capture the celebrity foodies. We don’t make it just about celebrity foodies, because again there is so much talent among people who are not celebrities. But, we do want to capture what the celebrities are doing.

On how she convinces advertisers that Cuisine Noir is deserving of their dollars: We’ve really tried to present my analytics; we’ve got a great customer base. Unfortunately, there are some stereotypes and there are some perceptions about black consumers, about black travelers, etcetera, that we try to make sure we, in terms of where we’re spending, especially, our disposable income.

On getting traction in the multicultural publications with ad dollars: I have found, not naming any particular brands or companies, but I’ve worked with some in the past and had a good relationship. But then people are always changing in agencies. People are always leaving, and sometimes it’s like a revolving door. You have to ask, “Okay, who is the new person overseeing this account?” and you have to start building that relationship all over again. I think it’s important to have people in these roles that are making the decisions of where these multicultural dollars are going, to understand publications such as ours. Again, you want the quality of trying to reach the consumer—in terms of the quality of the consumer and not necessarily the quantity.

On whether she feels being based on the West coast is helping or hindering her success with the magazine: For me, I think it helps—especially when it comes to the food [industry]. I feel California is a leader when it comes to the food movement, especially around sustainable eating and things like that, and especially when it comes to the wine industry. I feel that I either need to be here or in New York, and luckily I’ve got correspondents in New York that help me make sure that if there’s anything in New York that we’re invited to, then we’re there. I definitely think that we’re in a good place, being here in Oakland and San Francisco that allows us to keep a good pulse on the industry and what’s going on.

On if she had the opportunity to present her sales pitch about Cuisine Noir to a big ad agency CEO, what she would say: I would definitely try to talk about, one: working with someone who is truly about getting their brand in front of consumers and making a difference. For me, it’s not about just taking someone’s money. I understand that there’s a return on investment that needs to come back and that they’re looking for certain things. For me [though], it’s about relationship-building. So, if they [the advertising CEOs] are looking for someone who is going to partner with them to help meet their goals, plus build a really good relationship, that’s who Cuisine Noir is.

On the most pleasant moment so far during her Cuisine Noir experience: It was one of those days where I was thinking, “Oh, you know, nothing is clicking today.” It was just one of those off days. I remember receiving an e-mail from the Smithsonian Channel, and it was one of the producers that was putting together a video for the African American Museum of History and Culture in D.C. They wanted to secure one of our covers to be placed in a video that can still be seen today when you go to the fourth floor of the museum. There is a video that talks about African American cuisine, and the cover of Cuisine Noir comes up on the video.

On the biggest stumbling block she’s had to face: I think one of the biggest ones unfortunately, is around engaging advertisers. When there’s an advertiser that you’re trying to engage and, for whatever reason—it could be something that we did, but I try to make sure to fulfill our agreements—but when they decide to go in a different direction, those are advertising dollars that are taken away from you. Those are planned, and so the only thing that I can do is just work harder. It shows you that you really still have to work harder because nothing is guaranteed. No one is guaranteed to stay. That was sort of, I think, an eye-opener.

On anything she’d like to add: I would just say that we really love the people we are able to showcase and the stories. It’s really great. I love getting emails from people who have discovered us. For instance, we just got an email from the comedian Bernie Mac’s ex-wife’s publicist, about doing something with her.

On what someone would find her doing if they showed up unexpectedly to her home one evening: You would probably, if I’m not on a deadline, find me with a glass of wine, just watching my TV or something. I think sometimes I just try and turn my brain off. I read so much; I’ve got a whole table full of magazines. But, you know, I definitely just like to relax.

On the one thing she would have tattooed on her brain to be remembered about her forever: That I never gave up.

On what keeps her up at night: Trying to figure out how to get my advertisers and my sponsors engaged. That keeps me up at night.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Sheree Williams, publisher, editor in chief, Cuisine Noir magazine.

Samir Husni: Tell me about the genesis of Cuisine Noir. How did you come up with the name, and then how did you get from the blog all the way to the magazine?

Sheree Williams: I always tell everyone that I didn’t start the magazine. A different chef who is in California started it in the late ‘90s. He’s a chef down in L.A. and just wanted to get more exposure to black chefs. I connected with him in 2007 and, at that time, he had introduced the concept to me. I was doing my backgrounds in PR advertising and PR, and thought it was a very interesting idea, because I also was writing as well.

So, we connected in 2007 and I told him, because at the time I was in grad school, that the web was about to really blow up and a lot of media properties were going to be on the web. I worked with him to launch a Cuisine Noir site online in 2007. It was really exciting, because that’s when Tre Wilcox was on Top Chef and Aaron McCargo, Jr. had just won Food Network Star and the Neely’s (Gina and Pat) were just coming out. That’s when we were really starting to see diversity in Food Network and things like that.

So, we worked together to launch it [the Cuisine Noir site]. Then in 2008, I took it over because he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with it. From there, I said, “You know what, I want to do food, wine, and travel.” I was an avid reader of Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure magazines, and I just saw that there was a big opportunity to really showcase black food, wine, and travel.

In 2009, as I started to lead the magazine and take it over, that’s when I started to rebrand it. I relaunched it, and relaunched a website online with Carla Hall, so that was exciting. Then, in 2011 is when I said, “You know what? I think we’ve got a good following and a good market, let’s take it into print.” I took it into print then, with Tre Wilcox being our first cover story. We’ve been going ever since then.

Samir Husni: Has it been like a walk in a rose garden for you—everything went exactly like as you expected—or have you hit some bumps along the way?

Sheree Williams: I’m sure you know how tough the magazine industry is. We still face that challenge, you know, being a multicultural publication, in terms of dollar allocation. Before, a lot of advertising agencies would have pockets of money just for multicultural initiatives, whether it was black, Latino, Asian, etcetera. Now we’re finding a lot of the agencies are rolling those dollars into the general market and not having that pot anymore, so it is tough.

Also, I love, but just can’t compete with, in some instances, Essence and Black Enterprise and Ebony. They all have forty plus years on me. I’m a newbie in the game. So, there are some challenges there in terms of the advertising dollars and things like that.

But, we continue to move forward. I have a wonderful staff of different people around the world, and we continue to believe in the project, what we’re doing and telling the stories that we tell; the stories of some of the heroes that are in these industries that are not necessarily featured in some other publications. That really keeps us going. Unfortunately, there is no walk in a rose garden, but we’re just excited to be able to be in the space and tell the stories that we are able to tell.

Samir Husni: It has been said that when it comes to the multicultural—to African Americans, to Latinos, to folks from Middle Eastern descent, like me—that you have a certain color until you become rich and famous. Then, everybody’s color is green. How do you deal with that? Are you featuring the famous? Or, are you working more as the talent discoverer and that’s what the Cusine Noir platform is all about?

Sheree Williams: Well, we go in and out. I’ve personally had the honor of speaking to Dr. Maya Angelou; that was an awesome interview that I was able to do. With her two books that she had out, she was all about cooking and entertaining. We’ve interviewed Russell Simmons and Wendy Williams, so we do try and capture the celebrity foodies. We don’t make it just about celebrity foodies, because again there is so much talent among people who are not celebrities. But, we do want to capture what the celebrities are doing.

We just talked about—we had her on the cover before—Laila Ali. She was on one of my fall covers and just announced that she’s coming out with a cookbook to honor her father that’s due to come out in January, 2018. We talk about Patti LaBelle’s cookbook that just came out. So, we do celebrities, and I think if we can do more, get the brand out there more… I don’t know if the celebrities are going to help us blow up a little bit more? But definitely just more of them communicating to their audiences who will probably help bring more awareness to what we’re doing.

We definitely find as we’re growing, when it comes to the dollars, it seems to be a numbers game. They [the advertisers] want the millions of viewers. Essence has a circulation of over 800,000, and I’m not there yet. When it comes to those dollars, if they’re looking at eyeballs and things like that, then they [Essence] are going to be the obvious choice, and deservingly so. I get it; it’s just a numbers game.

Samir Husni: So, how do you then convince those advertisers and ad agencies that you’re more about the customers who count, rather than counting customers?

Sheree Williams: We’ve really tried to present my analytics; we’ve got a great customer base. Unfortunately, there are some stereotypes and there are some perceptions about black consumers, about black travelers, etcetera, that we try to make sure we , in terms of where we’re spending, especially, our disposable income.

Looking at a snapshot of our reader [base], I try and tell them that our readers are very sophisticated. They love to try different cuisines. They love to travel internationally—and this next print issue that we’re working on is all about travel. We’re all about that, so we talk about that. We talk about the spending power of African Americans, and how it’s in the trillions, and a lot of that is being spent in the food and beverage categories. We really just try to look at our customers, where they shop and what they like to do. I try to make sure, as much as possible, that I can say, “You know what? Here is a customer that is all about trying new products and getting out and trying new experiences,” saying, “This is someone that you definitely want to market to. This is someone that we’re talking to directly.”

We’ve got a very active group on Facebook. We’re sharing recipes all of the time. We’re sharing stories all of the time. Really, we’re just trying to let the advertisers know that the readers are engaged and they’re all about food, so if you’re coming out with a food product or you’re talking about this, then we’re the right people to talk to. That’s what the readers are coming to us for.

Samir Husni: Why do you think this is falling on deaf ears? Why do you think, after all these years, we keep celebrating diversity and yet—when the rubber hits the road—we feel as though we are not getting any traction?

Sheree Williams: I have found, not naming any particular brands or companies, but I’ve worked with some in the past and had a good relationship. But then people are always changing in agencies. People are always leaving, and sometimes it’s like a revolving door. You have to ask, “Okay, who is the new person overseeing this account?” and you have to start building that relationship all over again. I think it’s important to have people in these roles that are making the decisions of where these multicultural dollars are going, to understand publications such as ours. Again, you want the quality of trying to reach the consumer—in terms of the quality of the consumer and not necessarily the quantity.

Sometimes, I have to admit, and I can’t say it for sure, but sometimes I have to wonder are the people making the decisions in some of these agencies, do they truly understand our publications, the influences that we can have in these markets and in these communities? And, if they did, would that change things? Would they say, “You know what? I’m not going to spend a $100,000 here, or $50,000—or whatever they’re spending on some of the more seasoned publications—but I am going to take a risk with you.” Again, sometimes I think it comes down to who is making the decisions and [whether or not] they truly understand what we do and who we reach in order to give us a chance to really knock it out of the park.

Samir Husni: Do you think that being based on the west coast is helping or hindering you when it comes to the magazine’s success?

Sheree Williams: For me, I think it helps—especially when it comes to the food [industry]. I feel California is a leader when it comes to the food movement, especially around sustainable eating and things like that, and especially when it comes to the wine industry. I feel that I either need to be here or in New York, and luckily I’ve got correspondents in New York that help me make sure that if there’s anything in New York that we’re invited to, then we’re there. I definitely think that we’re in a good place, being here in Oakland and San Francisco that allows us to keep a good pulse on the industry and what’s going on.

Samir Husni: If you had the opportunity to meet a CEO of one of those big ad agencies, say, you’re alone with him or her in an elevator and you have 18 seconds to give your sales pitch about Cuisine Noir, what would you tell them?

Sheree Williams: I would definitely try to talk about, one: working with someone who is truly about getting their brand in front of consumers and making a difference. For me, it’s not about just taking someone’s money. I understand that there’s a return on investment that needs to come back and that they’re looking for certain things. For me [though], it’s about relationship-building. So, if they [the advertising CEOs] are looking for someone who is going to partner with them to help meet their goals, plus build a really good relationship, that’s who Cuisine Noir is.

We’re really about those relationship buildings, and we’re really about getting their products in front of our consumers—and I also love getting new things in front of my readers; that’s what it’s all about too. I think it’s a win-win situation. That’s what we’re all about: that relationship-building, trying to be an influencer for them, and then also engaging our readers and letting them know this is what’s new, this is what’s great, and this is what’s out there.

Samir Husni: What has been the most pleasant moment in the history of you and Cuisine Noir. Is there one specific moment you reflect back on and say, “Wow?”

Sheree Williams: It was one of those days where I was thinking, “Oh, you know, nothing is clicking today.” It was just one of those off days. I remember receiving an e-mail from the Smithsonian Channel, and it was one of the producers that was putting together a video for the African American Museum of History and Culture in D.C. They wanted to secure one of our covers to be placed in a video that can still be seen today when you go to the fourth floor of the museum. There is a video that talks about African American cuisine, and the cover of Cuisine Noir comes up on the video.

And that just made me cry. We celebrated that with the opening of the museum last September. My family and I went to the museum a couple of days later to see the cover just flash up on the screen in the museum. That was ad still is definitely a very proud moment for me.

Samir Husni: And what has been the biggest stumbling block you’ve had to face, and how did you overcome it?

Sheree Williams: I think one of the biggest ones unfortunately, is around engaging advertisers. When there’s an advertiser that you’re trying to engage and, for whatever reason—it could be something that we did, but I try to make sure to fulfill our agreements—but when they decide to go in a different direction, those are advertising dollars that are taken away from you. Those are planned, and so the only thing that I can do is just work harder. It shows you that you really still have to work harder because nothing is guaranteed. No one is guaranteed to stay. That was sort of, I think, an eye-opener.

But I also have to admit, too: I have a bachelors in advertising, and I did an advertising internship here in California before I actually moved from Chicago to California. I’m glad that I had that background. I think this whole thing with trying to solve the advertising puzzle and what is really going to get our foot in the door comfortably, is softened because of my background, knowing the lingo, what they’re looking for, and things like that.

I’m constantly having to overcome objections of “You’re too small. You’re great! But you’re too small.” So that’s still a stumbling block that I’m still overcoming right now. I’m actually constantly working on what is a good strategy, and I actually have a meeting with someone who I’m throwing out some strategy ideas to continue to overcome that stumbling block. I would say that’s one of the things I am constantly trying to overcome.

Samir Husni: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Sheree Williams: I would just say that we really love the people we are able to showcase and the stories. It’s really great. I love getting emails from people who have discovered us. For instance, we just got an email from the comedian Bernie Mac’s ex-wife’s publicist, about doing something with her.

We just contributed to something with Steve Harvey’s producer who is a baker. I love being able to tell those stories, when it comes to the community heroes. And also to share the stories of the celebrity foodies who are known for singing or doing something else, but also just awesome in the kitchen. I really am excited about that and just excited to see where we can go. I definitely hope people continue to follow us and join us for the journey and the ride.

Samir Husni: If I showed up at your home unexpectedly one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Would you be drinking a glass of wine, eating some Southern cuisine, reading a book, watching TV, on your iPad, or something else?

Sheree Williams: You would probably, if I’m not on a deadline, find me with a glass of wine, just watching my TV or something. I think sometimes I just try and turn my brain off. I read so much; I’ve got a whole table full of magazines. But, you know, I definitely just like to relax.

You’d probably find me, if I’m not out eating with someone, just sitting here on different things. I’ve been trying to catch up on what’s going on, watching some of the culinary competitions on TV to see who’s doing what. Or I’m just organizing. We get so busy sometimes. I’ve got a bookshelf I need to put up, so one evening I’m going to get to the bookshelf that I need to do. It really just varies, but one thing is sure, I’m relaxing. I definitely need to relax.

Samir Husni: If there was one thing you would want engraved or tattooed on your brain, that would be remembered about you forever, what would it be?

Sheree Williams: That I never gave up.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Sheree Williams: Trying to figure out how to get my advertisers and my sponsors engaged. That keeps me up at night.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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