There are times when you may not really know what your dream is. Then, one day, circumstances change and the idea presents itself to you. Such was the case with Lee Clayton Roper, where a project to help her ailing mother has evolved into a second career.
DENNIS: The beauty of pursuing dreams is sometimes when you take a passion or a hobby or an interest you have from a very young age and you turn it into something. And with me today I have my good friend, Lee Clayton. Lee, nice to have you here today!
LEE: Thank you!
DENNIS: And Lee, you were a foodie way back before it was cool, right?
LEE: I was. I was. I mean, I have always been fascinated by cooking and loved to cook and eat really delicious food since I was a little girl. And my mother used to tell stories about how she would put me on the kitchen counter when I was like two and give me measuring spoons and cups and bowls and sit me next to the sink. And I would imitate her and measure and pretend cook. And then it just kind of went from there.
DENNIS: And when did you have your first cookbook?
LEE: My first cookbook? I was probably about seven or eight. There was a cookbook for kids that Denver Art Museum put out. I still have it. It's called like A Christmas Cookbook or something and there was a picture of Santa Claus on front. And I used to make Kris Kringle Cookies out of there all the time then I was little.
DENNIS: That's fun. So, Lee, you had a dream around food and around cooking. Would you tell us about your dream?
LEE: Well, you know, it's an interesting story and when I talk to people a lot about pursuing their passion, I think the interesting sort of lesson learned that I can share that I think some other people have is figuring out what your dream is. Because a lot of time, you can have a passion and it’s right in front of you and you don't really realize that that is really what your dream is.
LEE: And that's what sort of happened to me. I mean, I’ve always loved to cook and entertain. I had my first dinner party when I was sixteen. This was in the seventies. Most kids, their parents would go out of town, they go get a keg of beer and have a party. And my friend Lucy and I would have a dinner party.
LEE: I told my mom and she was like, “You want to do what?!” and I go, “We want to have a dinner party!”
LEE: So I started this at an early age. I grew up in a household with parents who loved to cook and entertain. It was very important to my parents to have that sort of one on one with people in the home as a way to kind of form bonds, get closer to family and friends. There were dinner parties at least once a week. I had my mother’s entertaining diaries, and there were some weeks when she had three dinner parties in the same week. She’d just do the same menu and make a lot of it ahead. And then just repeat it.
So it had always been, you know, ingrained in me and part of me and part of what I loved. But I didn’t really realize that it was my dream and what I wanted to do for a long time. I mean, I was in the cable business (which as you know, that's how you and I met) and kind of working my way up corporate ladder and kind of plowing along and having a great time. And then I got to the top of the corporate ladder and kind of went, “Well, okay, this isn’t as much fun as I thought it was going to be.”
And kind of decided part of that was how the cable industry had changed. That's another story. But around the same time I had just moved back from Europe and my mother was starting to fail… her health was starting to fail. I mean, she had pretty advanced osteoporosis and so she couldn't be as active as she once was. She couldn’t ski or golf or couldn't really even really go shopping together. It wasn't very comfortable for her. She was in a walker most of the time. But most importantly, she couldn’t really cook and entertain. And I got my love of cooking and entertaining from her. It was something she really loved to do. And so we decided to write a cookbook together. I was trying to find something that she and I could still do together. That would at least keep her mentally active because in addition to the physical limitations, she was also starting to have some signs of short term memory loss.
DENNIS: I see.
LEE: And my dad had also Alzheimer’s at the time and we knew from our education from the Alzheimer's Association that the less active mom became, the worse her memory loss would be.
LEE: And plus it just wasn't as much fun for us. I mean, we weren’t cooking together, we weren’t shopping together, we weren’t playing golf together, we were just watching TV together. And I thought, “This isn’t good.” It's not fun for either one of us. It's not healthy for either one of us or our relationship. So I started knocking around some different ideas with her and I finally hit on the idea of writing a cookbook together. And she loved the idea. And so that's kind of how we got into this whole thing.
And she couldn’t really cook anymore, so I was doing all the sort of testing of the recipes which she was tasting them. I mean, I would make them in our kitchen and ask her questions. And she could really go through all of her recipe boxes and favorite recipes and reminisce about dinner parties and kind of sort of vicariously still be cooking even though she wasn't really cooking. And so it started as a family project and then friends and family started to find out about it. You know, we were just going to take it to Kinko's and Xerox it off and you know, give it to my cousins or whatever. And our other friends and extended family started to find out about it and they said, “No, we love all of your recipes. We love your mom’s recipes. You guys have to publish this.”
LEE: And so I started looking into the process. Mom and I talked about it and we decided, okay, we'll publish it. And so we self-published and unfortunately, a couple of months before the book came out, my mom passed away.
DENNIS: Oh my.
LEE: So she didn’t quite make it all the way through, but, you know, she helped select all the recipes. She had edited about two thirds of the book. She had been a senior editor on several community cookbooks, so she knew what she was doing. And she still remembered that. I mean, she didn't know who the sitting president was or what month it was or you know, what year it was but she knew her recipes and she remembered how to write recipes and edit them and organize them. And I had worked on a couple as well; some with her, some other ones. So we knew a little bit about what we were doing.
We put the book together. She missed the photoshoot unfortunately, but again, she helped picked the name. helped with the name of the publishing company. She’d seen the whole graphic design and approved it. We did the photoshoot and we were a couple weeks late sending it off to the printer. But my graphic designer called and said, “Okay, you need to make note of this date because I'm uploading all the materials to the printer now.” And I looked at the calendar and it was September 4th which was her birthday.
DENNIS: No way.
DENNIS: How nice.
LEE: So anyway, that was kind of a, I hope – a little bit long but short-winded for me – explanation of kind of how I fell into realizing what my dream was. And once I started to get into this, I was still consulting in the cable television business at the same we were doing the book. But the book came out. It was very successful. Within about four or five months, we won a gold medal. And I kind of started to realize that I was really having a lot more fun doing this than what I was doing on the cable side. Which was still interesting but the industry had really changed a lot and was evolving in a different way. And it just wasn't as much fun for me. And a lot of that is really because this is, you know, cooking and entertaining and teaching people how to cook and sharing what I know and giving them advice about entertaining and you know, getting people back into the kitchen and cooking together and eating together around the table is a big passion of mine. And when I was doing that, it was really a lot more fun. And so all of a sudden, I realized that this was really what I should be doing.
DENNIS: Well, it's interesting because you said, you started, you know, helping your mom at the age of two and at a very young age mimicking her in the kitchen. And then, sixteen years old, wanting to do a dinner party instead of having a “kegger” while the parents were out of town. I mean, you know, you had this passion. You had this love of food and the love of cooking and a love to do this. And it wasn't until… I mean, you’ve done it all through your life. I remember you had dinner parties as an adult as well and as a teenager. But then the family event that transpired with your mother and her failing health and how can you engage her and keep her in the here and now, essentially, and to capture her wisdom and her passion that melded into your own. And then suddenly, you have a cookbook out there and it was more than the cookbook, right? Because you've gone on… what's happened since the book came out?
LEE: Well, the book came out and I really started to focus more on the culinary world. And so I did for about two and a half years. Once a month, I was on the news here in Denver doing cooking demonstrations. I teach cooking classes, I do cooking demonstrations in other places. I develop recipes for different companies using their products. And I speak. I mean, I speak about a variety of different topics. I do public speaking. I mean, you remember when I was in the cable industry I spoke all the time. So I could take that years of experience of public speaking and put it here. And I talk to organizations about taking care of an elderly parent and sharing that information. I talk about very specific… I go and talk to garden clubs about cooking with herbs and you know, garden clubs know really well, you know, the people at the garden club know really well how to raise an herb but I talk to them about harvesting it, storing it, chopping it, you know, how to use it in foods, how to preserve it, that sort of thing. So I talk about that. I talk about pursuing your passion. I talk about my lessons learned in the corporate world. So I speak on a number of different topics but most all of which really all dovetail back into the book.
DENNIS: That's cool.
LEE: Yeah. And I go on the road. We have an Airstream trailer and I go on the road around the country promoting the book and doing cooking demos and book signings.
DENNIS: Fun! I mean, if you are going to travel, that’s the way to travel, right? [Laughs]
LEE: Well, it's great because if you go on the road as a cookbook author, people want you, at a minimum, have food samples. If not, do a demo. And if I don't go in the trailer, you are doing your cooking, you're trying to find a kitchen somewhere to do it in. You know, you're trying to find, you know, maybe you're in a Embassy Suites with a little mini-kitchen but you don't have a blender or Cuisinart there. So just more limited. I can take all my stuff with me between the airstream and the car and I have a place to prep and a place to store stuff. And I can get everything ready for my demos and it works really well.
DENNIS: Right. So you have the materials, you know the materials, you got your tools that you are accustomed to, it's not trying to make do with what you find on the road somewhere, which is difficult, right?
LEE: Right, exactly.
DENNIS: Well, Lee, along the way in this process, what made you believe that you could do this? What was the symbol or the sign that said “I can make this happen.” That the book, the moving on from the book into the whole culinary career side of it?
LEE: It was a couple of different things. I think a big one, honestly, was the positive response to the book. You know, because as I said, it kind of involved. And, honestly, as it was sort of evolving, it was just sort of starting with this project with mom and then following it through to a natural finish. And I never really thought along the way, “Oh, my God, is this going to be successful?” I mean, I guess I knew that so many people loved our recipes and loved coming to our dinner parties, both mine and my mom and dad. Mine and Robert’s with my mom and dad’s over the years that I guess I had confidence in the quality of the product. And then immediate positive response and the reinforcement of winning the medal which was an independent – you know, totally independent, not just friends and family, people who didn’t know who we were, you know – acknowledging it.
And I think having all those years of experience. As you know, in the cable industry, a lot of my work was marketing, strategic planning and business development. So I knew that aspect of it. And I also had a research background, which is where I started. And I did a lot of research going into this. Once the book came out, and even while we were doing it, when we decided to publish it, you know, thank goodness for the internet, I did a ton of research online around – and there were still things I didn’t learn and I did wrong but you know, I learned as much as I could in a short time frame – about publishing and about cookbooks and about what needed to be done. And you know, I kind of learned that publishing a book is really just project management; you figure out the resources that you need to get them in place and you put it on, you know, any kind of a product development timeline and you just follow it through to the end. The challenge becomes once the product is in your hand, now you have to market it.
LEE: You know, it's not just “build it and they will come,” you have to get it out there. And fortunately, I had a marketing background. And I was able, through both the production process and after that, to be fortunate enough to have really good resources to bring in and help me.
LEE: Because I knew I couldn't do it on my own. I knew I needed to find a really graphic designer for the book. A really good photographer and a good writer and PR person. And I was able to quickly find those people. And again, I'm working on my second… you know, my second book is at the printer now and ended up with a different team. My photographer was on a sabbatical and there were these different things that were happening. So, again, I was able to fairly quickly put together a really solid team to put this book together as well. And I think knowing what your dream is, is important. You get the belief from knowing what it is, being committed to it, realizing… I think you can believe in it when you know and you acknowledge what you can do what you can’t do, and you're able to find the resources to address the latter. And you have a really strong support group around you. I mean, my husband was and continues to be my biggest cheerleader. Always right there next to me supporting me, directing me, providing me advice, you know, when I get like really frustrated or depressed or like, you know, “Oh my god, nobody is going to really like this book!” He's like, “Don't be ridiculous.” He's there to provide that support and keep me going.
DENNIS: I think you have so many lessons in there you're sharing with us right now and one that I liked is the fact that everything in your life, up to that point, prepared you for what came next. Your research background, your business background in terms of thinking strategically and you used that skill set that you have developed over the course of your cable career that then you’ve just applied it to a different industry and moving it over there which is pretty cool. What obstacles did you bump up against? What kind of challenges did you have and how did you overcome those?
LEE: You know, the biggest challenge was learning the publishing side of the business. Like so many businesses it's been so significantly impacted by the internet and digital distribution. And as a result is in a constant state of evolution like so many other businesses including like the cable business. I mean, again, that's a lesson, I saw that in the cable business dealing with a business that was constantly in a state of change wasn't new to me but it was understanding it in a different arena now. And how cookbooks are really not as affected by e-books.
LEE: You know, people you know, purchases of fiction books and hardback are kind of declining and e-books were growing. When my book first came out in 2009, cookbooks were counter cyclical. They were continuing to grow and they do today in hardback. You know, or printed I should say, it doesn’t necessarily have to be hardback but in printed version, much more so than e-book versions are. I mean, e-books are growing, but I mean that's another whole discussion. But you know, and it's is interesting they're counter cyclical. And my research kind of indicated there's two reasons why. And the two books that tend to be counter cyclical are reference manuals and coffee table books. Those that people still want to buy for the most part that are tangible. And cookbooks fit both of those. It can fit both of those categories. Mine does because mine’s a hardback and it’s with a dust jacket so it is a coffee table book. It can be.
I mean, I can’t tell you how many people tell me it sits out on their counter or on the table in their den because it's such a beautiful book. And it has full color photography and you know, very nice graphic design. So you know, we fit both of those categories. But understanding and keeping up with what's going on in this world, because even though hardback books are still selling, there's different things that you have to be on top to maximize that. Plus understanding what's going on, on the retail side.
2009, when my first book came out, independent bookstores were really struggling. I mean, I met with a lot of them when we were on the road and I got a handful of them to pick up my book, but they were really trying to get themselves sorted. I was just talking to a consultant a couple of weeks ago who told me independent bookstores are really hot right now and they have figured out their market. And they know they're back, they're making revenues again. They're focusing on a certain demographic market which happens, according to this consultant, to be my market. So she was like, she said, “Six years ago, I would've told you to deprioritize them.” She said, “Now, you need to put them at the top of your list.”
And so keeping on top of those sorts of things is always a big challenge. Understanding you know, when I printed my book… China, Singapore, least expensive place to print. You know, I did it in Singapore… well, the printer that I used, it was getting too expensive for them to print in Singapore and moved to Taiwan trying to get his cost down. And now he’s somewhere back in China. So keeping on top of all of that, as China is developing their labor costs are going up, which is bringing their competitiveness down… I mean, they're still less expensive in the printing world but it's getting closer. And you know, I don't know, maybe the time my book that's out there now, maybe when I go to reprint that in a few years, I might actually be able to print it in the US. Wouldn’t that be nice?
DENNIS: That'd be cool. Yeah.
LEE: You know, so keeping on top of all that, keeping on top of the trends and really trying to understand in the food world what's the short term trend, what's really a change in people's eating habits and what are people thinking and feeling about different things. You know, like I was going to put… a lot of more and more friends that have celiac and are going gluten free. And so I was going to start to put some of that in my book and – it's really interesting – there's just as big of a group out there who are irritated to death by all these diets. And they're like, “If you put that gluten-free or any of that stuff in your book, I'm not going to buy it!” I'm like, “Really?”
So like with my first book, if you go to my website, you can download a gluten-free guide to my first book, A Well-Seasoned Kitchen. And so if you are gluten free, you can download that. It tells you which ones are naturally gluten-free and then how to adapt a whole bunch of the rest of them. And so I sort of made the decision with the second book to do that based on what I'm seeing in the trends now. You know, I can change that with the reprint if you know, it continues to be something that's important to people. But it was very polarizing in my research.
LEE: So I decided to do it the same, and do it but leave it out of the book so that the people who want it can get that. But the people who don’t don't have to have it in there.
DENNIS: Right. So try find a solution, try to mix those up there.
LEE: Yeah, and like different things because you want to be current but you don't want to be viewed as trendy. I mean, I want my books to be the kind of cookbook that twenty years from now, people are still cooking out of. And the good news is my first one which is now six years old, people who I meet and who have my book still tell me that they cook out of it all the time. And that's what I want, you know, that means it's not trendy. And so, you know, you have to kind of figure out, “Okay, is Kale here to stay?” Or in five years from now, are people going to go, “Oh, this book was written in 2015 because it's got all these kale recipes in it.”
DENNIS: Right. Interesting.
LEE: I mean, you have to try to figure that out as best you can.
DENNIS: I never thought about it being sort of “trend-based” but it makes sense now that you say that.
LEE: You need to figure out what's a short term blip and what's really a change in eating behavior. My next book is called Fresh Tastes from A Well-Seasoned Kitchen. And it focuses on a fresh perspective on old classic recipes, but also within that, using fresh ingredients when and where possible. Because my belief in all the research I've done has shown that this desire of people to eat more fresh food isn't just a short term trend. This is really where people are going because they're understanding, especially with the baby boomers as they get older and get more health conscious, they really are starting to understand that eating more with fresh foods and less with processed foods is really better for you. And the good news is fresh foods are becoming more and more available. Even if it's fresh frozen. I mean, they're getting out there a lot more.
LEE: And you know, there's more and more local, you know, farmer's markets and access and a lot of the… what do they call them “food deserts” are now slowly being filled in in these urban areas. So it's becoming more accessible. And as it becomes more accessible, it's becoming more affordable. I mean, Walmart is starting to finally have more and more organic foods and fresh fruits. You know, and once they get on that bandwagon, you know, it really increased availability.
DENNIS: That's cool. Along the journey here, what's been some of the biggest surprises you’ve encountered?
LEE: That's an interesting question. I think… I don't know what the biggest surprise is. Probably again just in the little things but they all had to do with stuff in the publishing world. Like, Publishers Weekly will only review your book before it comes out.
LEE: But it's like, you know, they want a galley copy. You know, they want to review it before it's available. I mean there's little things like that that were surprises to me that I didn't understand. You know, that the press wants a galley copy to review. They want to review it before it comes out, not just Publishers Weekly but a lot of other ones. We had to sort of figure out what the heck is a “galley copy?” You know, which again, when you're in the fiction world and you're just black and white copy, you know, running off of just local, inexpensive printer or copy of your book for somebody to read is one thing, but when you're a food book with photography and graphics and a lot of things that sell it, it’s a little bit more of a challenge to figure out how to do that. So I think that was a big surprise for me kind of dealing in that whole area.
I think, I don't know if it's a surprise, but a huge challenge is managing social media. Because when my book first came out Facebook was fabulous, because I had my page, I could post on there, everybody connected to me, they would see all of my posts, I got all these interaction. And then now, you know, if you don't pay, very few people see (or significantly fewer people) see your posts. And so how do you manage that? And like within a reasonable budgetary standpoint. Because you know, I had people help me with my social media strategy and implementing that. But you know, we’re postings three or four times a week. I mean, it would quickly use up my budget if I, you know, I have to pay them so then if I have to pay to post every post. So that is sort of a challenge to figure out how to manage that. And I think that the surprise part was how frequently Facebook keeps changing the algorithm and changing what they're doing. So as soon as you finally kind of figure it out and you know, my views start to go up, then they change it again.
LEE: I know another big surprise was I had redone my website starting in 2013 and we finished… I can’t remember when we launched it, later ‘13, ‘14. And everything was beautiful when it came out. And within a couple months after that, something changed in the technology and all of a sudden, it didn’t work on mobile devices.
DENNIS: Oh, wow!
LEE: Uh-huh. And then it was like I just spent six months and all this money redoing it and then I had to do it again. And fortunately I did because I was like, “Oh, I should just wait.” Then I thought, “No.” I started looking at my stats and like sixty percent of the people that had gone to my website before we changed it came from a mobile device.
DENNIS: Right. It's only increasing.
LEE: Well, and then, fortunately I did to it because two or three months after we launched the one that works beautifully on mobile and then Google came out and said, “If your site doesn’t work on mobile, if somebody searches, we're not even going to have you come up.” I mean there were like, “if you don't work on mobile, forget it.” And so that was kind of a surprise. Keeping up with the technology is where the surprises are I guess, to give you the short answer because that's really what's happening in social media and the web and with mobile. I think the number of people that are accessing recipes online and really by their phone is interesting. I have an eBook version of my cookbook now.
That was another surprise or challenge is how nobody has yet figured out how to take a cookbook style book that works in print and make it also work as an e-book. Every year, I go to the culinary conference and they're always talking about this. Books that are designed as an e-book work fine as an e-book but most books are designed to be a print book and then have an e-book version and the e-book versions are just clumsy. And it's actually a challenge I've given to the people that are working on the production of my print book is to see if we can’t solve this.
DENNIS: Oh, interesting.
LEE: To figure out how to do this and they are excited about it and have some ideas. And it's interesting because the agency I'm using to do that, their sister company is a printing company. So they have a lot of this knowledge right under their roof. So, it will be interesting to see but that's kind of a surprise/challenge is trying to solve that nut because I think that could be really big. I mean I have to kind of think about it because honestly, I do have people – I've run into people – who buy my book and they’re, you know, wealthier and they’re like, “I own three copies of your book. I have one in each of my houses.” And I'm like, okay, if it was an e-book, they’d only buy it once for $5; instead of three books it would be $4.95. And again, if they're using it more and talking about it more, then I think I'm happy.
DENNIS: Yeah, time will tell.
LEE: But I think most of the people that are out there would probably do both. You know, they would want to have a hard copy but then they'd also want to have the e-book. Because the beauty of an e-book is you can check the recipes while you're at the grocery store.
DENNIS: Yeah, that's very true. Lots of benefits to having an electronic version of it, for sure. Lee, there’s some amazing obstacles that you’ve encountered. You have a totally foreign industry from what you worked in for many, many years in trying to learn the ins and outs of publishing and everything. Based on the whole experience from when you were three years old up to writing the book with your mother up to launching an entire business around this, any other advice you have for other people who are pursuing their dreams?
LEE: Have a lot of money in your savings account…
Because it's not the same as a corporate salary. And you need to be prepared for that if that's kind of change you're making. I mean, you need to…. And the good news is you know, my expenses went down as well. I didn't need to have, you know, fancy Armani suits and you know, I mean, even when I go to my cooking demos, I'm usually wearing an apron or just a nice pair of pants and a shirt. I mean, my expenses went down but you have to… there's an adjustment time period that you go through when all of a sudden, you don't have that nice big paycheck coming in every month. You need to have savings so that you can get through that transition comfortably without totally stressing out. And you need to have a conversation with your spouse if you're married or significant other around what those implications are going to be so you're going into it both understanding. Because you know, some people might get lucky and within a couple months going over you know, boom, all of a sudden, they're making all these money. But it takes a couple of years to build… several years, you know, three to five to build a business to the point where you are really having a revenue stream that you can really manage and understand.
DENNIS: That’s well put. It's so true. I mean, people think it's overnight success. Most people who are overnight successes… it's not overnight; it's a long process to get there. And then suddenly, you emerge on the scene as being a success when there’s been three to five years behind that of a lot of hard work, a lot of stressful evenings. But what you’ve shown and what you’ve proven it is that if you persevere, if you stick to it, follow your dream, work on it, continue to refine, continue to learn, you can make it happen.
LEE: Yeah. And don't be afraid to make mistakes because you will. You know, and then you just have to kind of learn from them and move on. And resource, resource, resource. Bring in as many people; talk to as many people as you can that know this stuff that you don't know. I mean that's why I go to this culinary conference every year. It’s not inexpensive. This year, I couldn’t because we were right in the middle of a photo shoot for the next – for Fresh Taste – but you know, because you can learn at those things. And it's like our old days when we used to go CTAM, the cable marketing conference. You learn from the panels but you learn from all the hallway conversations. There's all these other cookbook authors there and there's all these experts and people have been at it for years. And so if you can find those kinds of resources, they are invaluable, I think.
DENNIS: That’s great.
LEE: And bring them in to help you achieve what you want to achieve and learn what you don't know.
DENNIS: This is great. Lee Clayton Roper, thank you so much your time today.
LEE: Thank you!
DENNIS: Your website is www.awellseasonedkitchen.com
DENNIS: Excellent. For Xpelli, I'm Dennis Hodges. Dream. Believe. Do. That’s it!
LEE: Thank you.
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