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Behind the scenes: Root + Bone

Posted by Steve Watson on Thursday, October 16 2014

Steve Ryan, co-founder of Root + Bone, on making a food magazine that's not for mums

As well as this month’s main magazine we also sent out a free extra title with October’s Stack delivery – the brilliantly raucous food magazine Root + Bone. It’s just a year old, but this London-based free sheet has grown incredibly quickly in that time, and now distributes a massive 15,000 copies in cafes, bars and other cool food-related places in the UK and overseas.

I caught up with co-founder Steve Ryan to find out where the idea for the magazine came from, and to ask whether crazy can ever get too crazy.

Root-and-Bone

I love Root + Bone – how did you end up making it?
Four of us make the magazine and we all worked together on a cookbook for Movember back in 2010 called Cook Like a Man. Anthony Power is a chef and he wrote the book, Mark Calderbank and Alex Denman are designers and art directors and I’m a photographer.

We all really enjoyed it and we did another one in 2011 and one in 2012, and it got me thinking about the opportunity for really cool food stories that just weren’t being done. So I started pitching ideas to the magazines I was already working for, like the Financial Times magazine, Vice and other big names, but nobody liked the stories – mostly people said they weren’t safe enough for their audience.

The majority of those food magazines are pitched at housewives, but there’s a demographic that’s not being served so we decided to make our own little zine for ourselves and our friends – people who are interested in food or working in the food industry. Because most of the chefs I’ve met are crazy – they’re more rock star than rock stars these days, so we decided let’s make one for the chefs.

Root-and-bone-magazine

Crazy is right – we sent Root + Bone out with Stack this month, but there’s one particular story [about cooking with semen] that made me think twice. Do you ever worry about going too crazy?
We debated that one for days. But this issue is all about unconventional cooking and we were determined we were going to leave no stone unturned, so we had to have it in the issue. We’ve had mixed reviews on Twitter with some people saying it’s a step too far, but others are coming back saying they love it! But we don’t just want to be sensationalist, because then nobody takes you seriously, and we don’t want that.

For example, when I say that established magazines wouldn’t take our stories, we weren’t pitching that sort of thing. There was one we ended up doing for issue one where we tattooed pork belly with squid ink – we brought together our chef with a tattoo artist and we made a one-off art piece that you could eat. I thought that would be eaten up by the likes of the Observer or the Financial Times, but they all said it was too much for them.

So we did it ourselves. We printed 2,000 copies, which we figured we’d split 500 each, and we’d give them to friends and clients and throw them into a few independent cafes and bars and stuff. We guessed that would be enough to cover three months until the next one came out, but they were all gone in the first week or two.

So it went very well, but obviously we wanted them to be around for a bit longer, so for issue two we decided to see how far we could go, and we printed 10,000 copies. They went really well too, and now we’re up to 15,000 copies.

Root-and-bone-animals

That’s phenomenal. And you’re starting to sell some ads in there too – does it all add up to a sustainable business?
We’re working on it! Our overheads are our print run and distribution, and we’re building a website too at the moment. So a lot of money goes into it, but we have a few goals in mind and the first one is to make the magazine pay for itself. Then we want to pay contributors too, because everyone works for free at the moment – we’ll be paying contributors before we pay ourselves.

We have people contacting us all the time asking whether they can contribute, and it’s kind of embarrassing because I write back saying thanks, but all our contributors work for free and if you’re happy to do that it’s great, but I’d totally understand if you say no. Because I say no all the time when people ask me to do things for free.

That’s why we always say at the front of the magazine that we’re four guys doing this with our own money in our own spare time. It’s not because we’re trying to big ourselves up, but there are so many magazines out there with big brands behind them (I just picked up one today by Adidas) and I just want us to separate ourselves from those. We’re totally independent.

Get more great food publishing – check our interview with The Gourmand’s David Lane

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