When Eric Thorkilsen wants to go to work, he shuffles through his spacious kitchen, climbs a flight of stairs and settles into the office over his three-car garage.
From his desk, he can gaze out the back window at a wide, tranquil lake and thick forest. He can also shoot off emails and make phone calls to far-flung employees about how to best lure tens of millions of new customers to his company's growing array of products.
"Welcome to our global headquarters," he said, welcoming a guest to his nearly silent workplace at his New Canaan home.
Thorkilsen, 62, is founder and CEO of Edible Media, which he hopes will capitalize on the country's growing appetite for locally and sustainably grown food. Last year, he bought a controlling stake in one of the print industry's rare recent success stories: Edible Communities, a farm-to-table focused magazine, launched in 2002 in Ojai, Calif. Since then, the business has mushroomed through licensing into a stable of 80 individually owned publications that range from "Edible Vancouver" in western Canada to "Edible Nutmeg" right here in Connecticut.
For Thorkilsen, the recipe forward is simple: While the magazines reach a collective 1.4 million readers, the market research suggests the upscale target audience is actually about 70 million people. He hopes to win a healthy portion of that sector by expanding the Edible brand online, on television and in other ways. Doing so, he's convinced, would delight advertisers and secure a niche in the rapidly changing media landscape.
"We're trying to be the go-to, first leader in this space," Thorkilsen said. "If we do our job right, we'll be important to the marketers that want to reach those households. And it's not just about food, it's about the cars they drive, it's about the appliances they have, the kitchen cabinets they buy. It's everything."
Becoming a publisher
Thorkilsen is no beginner at this game. After majoring in English at Hamilton College, he moved to New York in the mid-1970s in hopes of becoming a writer. As it turned out, he was better suited for the business side, and soon had a job in circulation at Time Inc.
His first job was to help editors interpret the whims of their readers. He was also part of the small team that launched People Magazine. He later had stints at Sports Illustrated and overseas at Time International, he said. All the while, he was drawn to the idea -- ahead of its time, it turned out -- of building out magazine brands with TV shows.
He recalls with a twinge of regret watching Entertainment Tonight hit the airwaves in the early '80s. That was exactly the sort of project he'd wanted to spearhead with People.
When Warner Bros. merged with Time Inc. in 1989, Thorkilsen's job was to travel around the newly created conglomerate in search of "synergies." It didn't take long for him to chance upon the personification of the buzzword: Martha Stewart.Read Full Article
"If we can put together a multi-level deal with her, then we should do it," he recalls telling his bosses. They gave him some resources and he launched Martha Stewart Living magazine, and quickly had the doyenne herself doing regular bits on NBC's Today show.
In 1995, Thorkilsen left Martha Stewart Living to launch This Old House magazine. Over the next decade, he worked on a number of brand-broadening projects for TV and Internet outlets like Food Network and HGTV.
Then, one day in 2008, his wife brought home a copy of Edible Hudson Valley.
"I immediately thought, `Well here's a beautiful brand and a quality approach to lifestyle content,'" he said. "It's right in the middle of a clearly rising tide of consumer interest in farmers' markets and on the sourcing of foods."
Building out the brand
By any account, the company had been doing well, especially in the magazine world. Each year, it was launching about 10 additional regional titles. New publishers pay a licensing fee to Edible Communities, then hire their own staff, sell their own advertising and manage their own business.
Still, Ryder and Topalian had long dreamed of exploring other sorts of media, Ryder said in a phone interview this week.
"We care so much about this brand, we're very protective of it," she said. "We wanted to be very careful with who we're working with. Pick someone we really respect and admire."
For now, Thorkilsen seems to feel quite at home in his new position -- literally and figuratively. Most days, with his wife working at a local New Canaan bookstore and his teenage boys at high school, he works on expanding the Edible brand from his home office. His sole companion is his 2-year-old Wheaten terrier dog, Rookie.
He has a staff of about 15 people, from New York City to Chicago to San Diego, he said. They've already launched a new website to showcase the best content from across the Edible properties: EdibleFeast.com. They're launching a 13-episode show on PBS that crisscrosses the continent, exploring local food scenes.
Leading the Times
One recent Thursday, Thorkilsen's morning commute was longer than most. He rode a train into New York City to attend the company's weekly conference call in person.
It took place in a hip corner of lower Manhattan, at the office-apartment of his design guru, Ronnie Peters. It's the sort of apartment where the elevator from the lobby deposits you right in the living room. The exposed-brick walls are splashed white, the furniture is modern and the wooden kitchen table is topped with a sleek sheet of glass. Everyone's shoes were taken off at the door.
The conference call lasted about an hour. It was mostly good news. Word came in from California that the newly created Facebook page was drawing twice as much traffic as the week before. Word came from New York that the best content from the 80 Edible properties had been aggregated and was ready to be loaded, piecemeal, onto Edible Feast. Finally, Thorkilsen said the first episodes of the PBS show were nearly ready for prime-time.
"One more question," he added, looking slightly amused. "What do you guys think of The New York Times website's redesign?"
On the tabletop computer screen, Peters called up the site. He praised the extra white space that offers a homier feel. He scrolled the cursor over one word, clicking on it to call up meta-data about the typeface.
"They used the same font as we did," he said. "Georgia."
Thorkilsen broke into a grin.
"It's nice to be a leader for The New York Times," he said.