Monique Volz

Baking (and Blogging) From Scratch

A passion project becomes a delicious success for Monique Volz ’11.

Monique Volz remembers the day a cookie crashed her blog.

Ambitious Kitchen – the food and recipe blog Volz launched three months after graduating from St. Thomas in 2011 with a B.A. in marketing management and business communication – was bombarded by hungry foodies.

“I hadn’t checked my traffic that day, because I didn’t think it was possible to go from 5,000 visits to 30,000 in a day. It was the best worst problem to have, right?” she recalled.

The culprit? A combustible mix of her recipe for brown butter Nutella-stuffed chocolate chip cookies with sea salt, and the wildly popular lifestyle blog, Cup of Jo, which had featured her recipe that day.

“People were writing to me that this cookie changed their life. It was crazy. (New readers) were popping up on my Facebook page demanding, ‘Where’s your cookie recipe?!’ I had to get a new server,” she said.

For the last three years, Volz has had to relegate her beloved cooking and baking time to weekends following a 40-hour work week. And an additional five hours a week for photographing her finished creations, writing posts and updating her social media.

But that limited schedule has come to an end.

Volz, who has no formal culinary experience, has been drawing nearly one million page views per month. That’s enough traffic to make her, in blogosphere parlance, an “influencer,” who attracts not only scores of readers but also dollars in ad and sponsorship revenue.

In September she took a leap of faith, quitting her well-paying, stable job as social media strategist for Pillsbury at General Mills, to devote herself full time to Ambitious Kitchen.

“I never thought this would turn into something I could do full time, and now I can,” she said. “I’m still in disbelief that when I wake up every day, I get to bake and cook things that people will love, and hopefully inspire them.”

Self-rising star in the blogosphere

A novice to the world of blogs, Volz prepared herself by diving into a stack of how-to books on blogging during her last semester at St. Thomas. She also taught herself WordPress – today’s gold standard in website- and blog-building software.

In August 2011, while contracting in social media and public relations for General Mills, she quietly launched Ambitious Kitchen. “I didn’t know what I was doing at all,” she recalled. “I kept posting my recipes, but I didn’t think people would actually visit. Little by little, though, they did.”

Her unrelenting pursuit of “opportunities for discovery” separated her from the throngs of would-be bloggers who burst daily onto the scene. Volz reached out to owners of local food blogs, such as Pinch of Yum, for advice and support. Online, she especially was active, submitting her recipes to Foodgawker, commenting on other food blogs, consistently updating her brigade of social media and, most importantly, learning the art of ad monetization.

She was working long hours for an engineering firm in Washington, D.C., when she made her first dollars from her blog in spring 2012.

“I started making $50 here, another $50 there. It was so exciting!” she said. Though the new income wasn’t a windfall, for Volz, it was electrifying – the spark she’d been craving while braving her unfulfilling job. “It gave me the incentive I needed to realize that I wanted to work in food,” she said.

After six months in D.C., she moved to Los Angeles, where she took up contracting again and continued to post on her blog. There, she made a friend savvy in ad monetization who became a mentor and planted the seed in her imagination that with nobler effort and better tools of the trade, she could build Ambitious Kitchen into a full-time, money-making career.

Volz started publishing more often, and she bought a Canon Ti3 Rebel to boost the quality of her food photography.

“As soon as I made my first $1,000 (in a month), which was a year later, I thought, ‘OK. I can do this,’” she said.

Upping her ante paid off. Since she raised her bar, Ambitious Kitchen has been featured on BuzzFeed, PopSugar, and The Huffington Post, which named her among the Best Food Blogs of June 2013, among other websites and publications. And this year Mpls.St.Paul magazine featured her as one of Minnesota’s major social media standouts.

‘Sweet Treats and Healthy Eats’

While Ambitious Kitchen contains plenty of wickedly toothsome treats, Volz emphasizes that her focus is on “healthy eating and lifestyle without being overly restrictive, and making the sweets we all love a little bit healthier.”

Likewise, her motto – the tagline of her blog – is Sweet Treats and Healthy Eats.

“I work out almost every day, and I try to eat clean and healthy, so that’s my whole approach,” she said. She also hopes her message has a proactive effect on her readers: “I want to inspire people to get in their kitchens and try to cook a little bit healthier and make something they’ve never tried before.”

One reader’s comment stands out in her memory. “He wrote that since he discovered my blog a year ago he’s lost something like 50 pounds from using my recipes and that I was such an inspiration. Comments like that mean the world to me,” she said. “They help me know that what I do matters.”

Family influence

Though both of Volz’s parents loved to spend time in the kitchen, it wasn’t until her stretch at St. Thomas that she discovered her passion for cooking and baking.

Throughout high school and her early undergraduate years, Volz remembers eating out too often. Fluctuations in her weight and energy, which made her unhappy, were the consequences of those years of unhealthy eating.

“I had a poor understanding of nutrition,” she said. “After I started college, I realized I’d gained 15 pounds. When I moved off campus, I thought, ‘I need to start cooking for myself.’ I was so busy with classes and an internship (at Minnesota Monthly), but I knew I needed to change my approach to eating.”

To be fair, Volz also found herself coping with a heartbreaking stroke of “awful timing” when she received a call, three days before her first day of class as a freshman, that her father had passed away.

“My dad was the baker,” she said. “My parents divorced when I was younger, and every time we got together, we’d make pie, we’d make cake ... he made the best yellow cake and would always make homemade chocolate frosting ... whenever I bake, I feel closer to him.”

Volz would draw from those experiences – as well as time with her mother, a native Puerto Rican whom she calls a “fantastic cook” and gets together with often for cooking marathons – to overhaul her eating habits and, eventually, launch Ambitious Kitchen.

Yes, blogging is a ‘real job’

At first, Volz shied away from being called a success story.

“You really think so?” she asked, genuinely surprised, her tone flecked with uncertainty.

After a long pause, she granted that perhaps hers really is a success story. Her skepticism, she explained, is not rooted as much in self-doubt as it is in the persistent consensus that blogging is not a legitimate profession.

“When people ask me what I do, I’ll often say, ‘I have a recipe website,’ because they don’t get it if I tell them I’m a blogger. I know my mom’s friends don’t!” she said.

Volz recalled her co-workers’ reactions when it was announced she had quit her job. “They were wishing me good luck on my project, so I had to correct them: ‘Nope. It’s not my project. It’s my job.’ A lot of people don’t get that I can make money off of blogging and support myself.”

As the top “sampler” of Volz’s kitchen creations, Tony Bucciferro, Volz’s boyfriend and a pitcher with the Birmingham Barons – a AA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox – can attest to her stalwart work ethic. “Since I met Monique, she’s only skipped one day, maybe two, of cooking, and I don’t think there’s a single day that she’s not talking about or developing a recipe,” he noted.

Though she wouldn’t divulge her income, Volz noted, “I could have quit (my job at General Mills) a long time ago. I was just scared about having to think about health insurance and all the other stuff you have to deal with when you’re self-employed.”

Volz named fellow Minnesotan Lindsay Ostrom, a networking friend and former fourth-grade teacher, and her husband, Bjork, as evidence of blogging’s potential. The couple’s hit food blog, Pinch of Yum, has raked in more than $200,000 this year, according to the online income reports they publish each month. The Ostroms, like Volz, also made the leap to full-time blogging earlier this year, after launching in 2010.

To emphasize her point, Volz added, “And there are a lot of bloggers making a lot more than they’re making, let me tell you.”

Volz’s income comes from a blend of advertising and sponsorships. To monetize the ads that appear on her site, she works with several ad networks, which pay her either by CPM (cost per mille), which means she’s paid a flat fee for every 1,000 clicks, or CPC (cost per click).

Sponsorships are another source of income. Food brands – including Just Bare Chicken, Ghirardelli and Blue Diamond Almond Breeze, to name a few – have been keen on having Volz incorporate their products into recipes and share them with her wide circle of influence.

Ambitious kitchen heads to Chicago

With her Facebook followers topping 28,000, Volz hopes to grow her blog followers by another 20,000 over the next year and will increase her posts to between three and five per week. In the meantime, she plans to hire an assistant to handle her administration and social media so she can devote all of her time to recipe development, content strategy and, the cherry on top: cooking and baking.

Monique VolzSince making the leap to full-time blogging in September, Volz made another leap in November – to Chicago where Bucciferro has lived since signing with the Barons.

“It’s been a challenge trying to remain organized during my move,” she said. But despite her frenetic schedule of late, she’s remained committed to posting consistently and monetizing her advertising, which is critical to her success as an entrepreneur.

“I’ve been able to continuously bring people to my site in order to make income, and since going full time, I’ve been able to say ‘yes’ to more client projects, too. It’s kept me extremely busy,” she said.

She also has an agent, who is helping her develop a cookbook she hopes will be published in 2016, and she’s toying with another entrepreneurial idea to sell muffins online.

Among the best perks, according to Volz, since making blogging her real job? The tax break on her gargantuan grocery bills – the average of which she would divulge only as “too much.”

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