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Food52 names Erika Ayers Badan CEO

Erika Ayers Badan CEO Food52
Thought Leader: Erika Ayers Badan
April 18, 2024

It’s change at the top once again for Food52. Four months after the abrupt departure of Williams-Sonoma veteran Alex Bellos, the company—which owns Schoolhouse and Dansk—has a new CEO: Erika Ayers Badan, the former chief executive of media brand Barstool Sports.

Ayers Badan may be an unfamiliar name in the home industry, but she’s no stranger to Food52. In 2016, media investment firm The Chernin Group bought a majority stake in Barstool, then did the same with Food52 in 2019, spending $83 million on the deal (followed by an $80 million infusion in 2021). Through the TCG connection, Ayers Badan acted as an unofficial advisor to the commerce-meets-content site, eventually joining its board in the summer of 2023.

Since Bellos’s departure in December, Ayers Badan had been acting as an interim leader during the search for a new CEO. Today, an ad hoc arrangement officially became something more permanent. “I spent a lot of time in Brooklyn [where Food52 is based] and Portland [Schoolhouse’s Oregon headquarters]. I got deep into the P&L and the brand and the products,” she says. “Getting closer to the business, I saw that there was great opportunity the company was missing.”

Ayers Badan takes the helm at a troubled time. Food52’s family of brands is suffering from both choppy business conditions—the fizzling out of the home boom, big tech platform shifts that have impacted digital media—and internal strife. Several former employees of the flagship site paint a picture of a tumultuous 18 months, defined by constantly changing priorities, high turnover and low morale.

After several rounds of layoffs last year, Food52 made another deep cut in February, letting go 45 employees across all of its brands, or 22 percent of its total workforce. On the other side of the country, Schoolhouse has had its own challenges. The brand recently shifted its showroom to by-appointment-only hours, while some customers have taken to social media to complain about delays and issues with online orders.

Ayers Badan is cognizant of both the business risks and company culture challenges ahead. “I’m an optimist. I feel that even during the time [since Bellos’s departure], we’ve improved things, we’ve simplified things,” she says. “I think [the company culture] will improve. Doing what’s right for employees and what’s right for consumers. … It’s really important to put those two things together.”

Her plan for Food52 involves some clear steps—updating the company’s tech stack, for one—as well as the broader goal of getting the site back to its community-first roots. “There was something very human about the way the brand organically grew and developed product. I think they lost that,” she says. “If we can reignite the storytelling and get back to being community-oriented … If you look at Food52’s Instagram, it dwarfs Williams-Sonoma’s, even though Williams-Sonoma is many times the size of our business. That to me is an indication of, hey, people are into this brand, and it has a bigger halo than the business reflects, which I think is a good place to be.”

Schoolhouse is a different kind of challenge. Ayers Badan wants to see the brand develop a storytelling approach to marketing and improve customer service. The complications of running a manufacturing operation, she says, can likely be solved by the in-house team. “There are very smart people who have been here 15, 20 years who have that expertise. I think, in a lot of ways, the answers have always been in the building,” she explains. “I’m not sure we as a board listened to or heard them, and I think that’s a big unlock.”

If Bellos had what seemed on paper like an ideal resume to develop Food52’s retail business, Ayers Badan’s background is slightly more unorthodox for a home brand. A digital media veteran with experience at Yahoo and AOL, she took over Barstool in 2016 when it was a scrappy operation doing a few million dollars in annual revenue. Over eight years, the executive helped grow it into a behemoth valued at $450 million. However, the site was occasionally a source of controversy, much of it centered around founder and social media personality Dave Portnoy.

“I think people will make a lot of assumptions and knee-jerk reactions for the rest of my life because I was part of a crazy company that had a wild run,” she says. “But I don’t think it’s an inhibitor of what I will be able to do here and what we will be able to do here. This is a little bit of an unexpected choice. Most people assumed that I would go to another Barstool type of business in sports or entertainment or sports betting. That’s what makes this a little bit interesting: I wanted to look at something really unique and different.”

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