Sarah Fennel is on the precipice of a major inflection point in her career. Her fourth, actually. An impressive figure made even more impressive by the relative brevity of her career, Sarah is a food blogger and the creator of Broma Bakery, a popular mostly-baking blog dedicated to visually impressive yet accessible recipes. But before her career started, there was of course that first point of change, which happened to take place here, at the University of Michigan.
Sarah had spent the first two years of college at New York University, but found herself overwhelmed and unsatisfied. “I just found myself feeling really depressed there, to be honest. I felt like the students were not what I expected,” Fennel said, in an interview with The Daily. While there, she decided to create a blog as a means of fulfillment and a way to combat the unhappiness she was feeling. “I was like, let’s do something fun and creative.”
But after completing her sophomore fall semester at NYU she was still dissatisfied with her surroundings, so she decided to take some time to reassess.
During this time-off, she visited the University. Not to view the campus, but to spend time with friends from high school. While all hanging out in a dorm room, her friend’s roommate casually suggested she should apply. The roommate herself was a transfer student, and assured Fennel that it was “the easiest application process ever.” So she applied, but had no serious intention of going.
But, as life would have it, she got in. “I basically was faced with the decision of: Do I go back to something that has made me unhappy in the past or do I try something new? And so I just decided to go for it.”
While at the University, Fennel majored in anthropology. “I loved anthropology, and biological anthropology in particular, because it examined humans in a way that bridged evolution with our intrinsic behaviors. I find it fascinating that we all have individual desires and goals, and yet somehow we're so interconnected that we can evolve together as an entire species based on collective interest.” All the while, she continued to work on her blog, which at that time functioned similar to an online diary. “(I was not writing that much) and it was not a lot of original recipes, I would recreate things other people had made. And it was just baking.”
After graduation, she took a job as the catering coordinator at Sava’s. But after a year at that position she felt burned out. “I sorta had a quarter-life-crisis. Or a 22-year-old crisis. Where I felt like I wanted to shift my focus onto doing something more like myself,” explains Fennel. “I was working super hard and not really reaping the benefits in terms of being able to go home at the end of the day and being like, ‘I created that.’ It was creating for someone else.”
So she quit her job. And for the second time she decided to take a leap. She gave herself two months to try to build her blog into something. “I really feel like because I had nothing to fall back on, in terms of — I had never made any money on my blog, I didn’t really have any job to go into if this wasn’t working out — it just made me work even harder.”
Her hard work translated into success. In one year, she went from 30,000 pageviews to 200,000 pageviews, and her Instagram following increased from 600 to 10,000 followers. But even with the success, the transition was at times daunting. “There was really this gradual shift of worrying what I was going to do next month, and where the money was going to come from and just feeling like an imposter. (It wasn’t until) around the two year mark when I had had this momentum where the business was continuing to function, that that fear subsided. It wasn’t until then that I really started to feel truly confident in my work.”
After working at the blog full-time for about three years, Fennel once more made a shift in her career, this time by launching an additional business, Foodtography School, a four-week virtual food photography course, where students are taught about subjects such as composition, light and color, as well as marketing and social media.
This expansion into online courses was not premeditated, though in some ways it was a long time coming. Fennel was constantly inundated with emails from readers asking her for help and resources on food photography. “So I started creating blog posts about food photography and teaching people how to edit, and my tips for compositions, and I what I used for lenses and camera recommendations and things like that.” But it was clear that there was opportunity beyond that. One day Fennel’s assistant pulled her aside, “[She said:] ‘Sarah, you need to do a food photography workshop, there’s never going to be a perfect time to do it, you just need to tell the world you’re doing one and plan it.’ And we did, and it was a huge success. It sold out in four days.”
After dinner one night during this initial workshop, an attendee told Fennel she should consider turning the seminar into an online course. “I had come out of the workshop and had netted like $10,000 and I was like, yeah! Whatever, I’m a millionaire, I’m good,” Fennel said with a laugh. But a few months later that attendee followed up and doubled down—she had started her own business teaching others how to create online courses, and thought Fennel should seriously look into it. So the two had a few calls on the subject, and Fennel eventually ended up bringing her onboard as a consultant. In the year since launch, Foodtography School has been such a smash hit that Fennel has expanded it to include two additional courses, a more advanced version of the original course and a restaurant food photography course.
One interesting consequence of the “foodtography” course is that she’s been able to speak to her readers and followers more directly. “The most interesting thing,” Fennel notes, “has been seeing how much people are craving content that is related but not necessarily food-centric. They want advice on how to grow their own business. They want advice on how I stay fit while eating real sugar and butter. They want to see how I decorate my home and things like that. And people are just asking for those types of content at a rate that now feels like we would be doing a service to not offer that kind of content.”
Herein lies Fennel’s fourth, and most recent shift: She’s refocusing the brand to be a more encompassing food and lifestyle brand that will venture into personal asides, such as how to stay fit while eating, in her words, “real sugar and butter,” as well as pieces on how she decorates her home. In the next nine months she plans to roll out new content and test what works best with her readers and followers. “I’ve teased this idea a few times on my Instagram stories (and) on my Instagram feed, to really get a sense of what people are looking for. It’s going to be trial and error. We’ll see what performs best. We’ll see what people enjoy the most and are asking for more of. And really go from there.”