Cooking Up Creativity

Written by Brett Levine

Photography by Chuck St. John

A multimillion-dollar commitment to inspiration and innovation anchors the recently renovated facilities of Time Inc.’s Birmingham campus. Coming in at 40,000 square feet, the Time Inc. Food Studios are the jewel in the crown of the company’s commitment to culinary innovation. Here, photographers, prop stylists, food stylists, test kitchen professionals, and recipe developers work in 28 kitchens and 13 daylight studios to produce content for 11 brands. Current staffing includes a six-member leadership team, 12 test kitchen professionals, five photographers, three recipe editors, four video producers and directors, and 14 food and prop stylists. It is, quite simply, a massive undertaking. “The goal is to reimagine how we create food content,” explains Allison Long Lowery, director of the Food Studios. “Our brands will produce more than 4,000 recipes this year, and the Food Studios reflect our belief that we can have efficiencies and synergies that come from bringing together our food expertise. If you are not familiar with them, our brands include Real SimplePeopleSunsetEssenceSouthern Living, and Cooking Light, to name a few. Essentially, these new studios allow us to consolidate everything with a food focus, and to think creatively about the many ways we can tell food stories across various platforms.”

The company’s commitment to food content is evident. Time Inc. regards these new studios as the “most comprehensive” food content studios in America, and given their size, scope, and diversity, that seems to be a good description. Apart from the daylight studios, which are multipurpose and designed to accommodate both still photography and moving image production, the new space also includes a dedicated team of video producers and directors with a new state-of-the-art video studio.

An array of kitchens provides professional-grade equipment for the range of food professionals who develop and prepare recipes every day. There are food stylists—people who make dishes camera-ready—as well as recipe developers, test kitchen professionals, and, for the first time in the company’s history, a kitchen coordinator who handles the logistics involved with ordering all of the food needed by the kitchen professionals. Lowery reiterates just how many people are involved: “Remember, there are 12 test kitchen professionals alone.”

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All of this talent results in opportunities across the range of media experiences. “What people may not know is that the Time Inc. brands will produce more than 2,000 food-related videos this year in the Food Studios,” Lowery says. “What we recognize is that often the home cook is interested in seeing how recipes are actually made, and these studios provide us with options for creating and sharing that content in a variety of ways.”

Then, the home cook or the professional chef might even connect with the company in person. The new facility includes tasting spaces, two show kitchens ready for live streaming, and a dining room. These areas can be configured to accommodate a variety of needs, meaning that they will be able to host product or techniques demonstrations, formal cooking classes, wine or food tastings, or a range of other food-related events. The scope of possibilities and partnerships is something both George Kimmerling, the Food Studios’ New York-based executive director, and Lowery believe is just beginning to be explored, particularly given the new opportunities the facilities will create. “One of our biggest commitments in relation to our place within the community is education,” Kimmerling says. “We are exploring ways to partner with organizations committed to teaching young people about food issues and quality of life,” Lowery notes.

Investing in these new studios is really Time Inc.’s reinvestment in the Birmingham community, which is, Lowery says, integral to the company’s mission. “The new Time Inc. Food Studios will be launched to the public with a ticketed event celebrating the 50th anniversary of Southern Living. People will have the opportunity to meet Southern Living editors and to enjoy a great night with some of the most innovative chefs and writers in our community. While we have offered tours of our test kitchens in the past, these new studios will create far greater opportunities to connect with the city.”

Connecting with the city was not the company’s only intention. As Kimmerling explains, the studios are also a reflection of Time Inc.’s appreciation of and commitment to the food culture that has always existed in Birmingham. “One of the opportunities we recognized when locating the studios in Birmingham was the chance to take advantage of the talent that was already here,” Kimmerling says. “As a company, we have always recognized that Birmingham’s food community was both well-developed and smart. We hope that the studios continue to highlight this fact. Of course,” he continues, “the food community in Birmingham has always been strong. We simply see these studios as an opportunity to contribute to its continued growth.”

Looking forward, those connections and that growth may involve food conferences, cooking competitions, professional or recreational education or certification programs, or even product testing. With such a comprehensive space, and so many spaces to work within, the opportunities seem limitless.

f3a069cf-ebd6-4325-8342-8de854d334dcThe new fifth floor studios are the project’s centerpiece, but the recent enhancements to the overall infrastructure of the studios should not be overlooked. The physical consolidation of production at the Time Inc. Food Studios site allowed a consolidation of physical resources as well. Previously, the many props and materials used by the brands had been located in several studios, both onsite and across the city. Now, all of the props and surfaces used by photo stylists are housed in a series of connected locations on the building’s ground floor. These new, larger spaces form a treasure trove, revealing an almost unimaginable cache of incredible objects collected by the company’s team of professional prop stylists over the years. The photography studio equipment is managed and maintained by a new photography assistant, providing both logistical and technical assistance and support to the photographers working on set.

The Time Inc. Food Studios even extend outside. A custom-designed patio, constructed in a large part from stacked stone, provides a range of options for preparing anything that needs to be seared, smoked, or barbecued. Gas grills, wood fired ovens, and smokers all stand at the ready.

Clearly, the Time Inc. Food Studios mark a major milestone in the history of food photography, video, and content production for the city of Birmingham. It marks a commitment by a major company to the creativity and innovation embodied in the many talented people who work within this city, creating and producing world-class material that is distributed across print and digital platforms worldwide. The studios themselves are both beautiful and utilitarian, bringing the best of the visual and the practical to those who work within them and those who appreciate and experience them.

For the company itself, it is what Kimmerling describes as “part of a larger transformation of Time Inc. into a contemporary media company that offers content across platforms, so consumers can access it however they choose.” This process, and the investment in the Food Studios, he adds, will also be exciting and engaging for staff, who will now work on many brands. “What we believe is that these new studios and the opportunities they create will offer everyone involved a chance to broaden their horizons and reach new audiences,” he says.

Standing on the fifth floor, looking across the vast expanse of the new studios, watching natural light cast its hue and shadows on the floor, it would be hard to imagine anything less.

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