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June 11, 2024
Order Your Next Mac and Cheese From…Etsy?

The artisanal e-com platform is a flourishing destination for home cooks looking to go (semi) pro

Sherrie Minter really doesn’t want to tell me which of her recipes is the best. “It’s like your children,” she says. “It’s hard to pick one.” The 67-year-old cook from Murrieta, California, finally answers my annoying question: “The hash brown casserole,” she says, referring to her cheese-crusted bake with cubed potatoes, bell peppers, garlic, onions, and sour cream.

I’d ordered Minter’s mac and cheese from her Etsy shop, ClassyKitchenGoods, where she sells hammy black-eyed peas, Southern-style cornbread dressing, and her customer favorite, Dark ‘n’ Lovely German Chocolate Cake—a moist, midnight-black crumb slathered with coconut-pecan frosting. Based on my experience with the velvety mac, which was like a microwavable hug in noodly dairy form, I’d bet the casserole is a home run. To Minter, cooking isn’t about clout. “It’s about a sense of home,” she says, “a warm feeling that you’ve got this good meal.”

After a 35-year career at a nuclear power plant, Minter joined Etsy in 2022. Though she’d always made special meals for her colleagues, family, and friends, she hadn’t cooked professionally when a friend who sold her knitting on the platform nudged Minter to consider listing her food. “I’ve never been artistic artistic, but my culinary arts have always been really good,” Minter says. “So I put a few items on Etsy to see how it would go.” Now she mails frozen, vacuum-packed dinners all over the United States—to Hawaii, Alaska, North Dakota, New Hampshire, and beyond. “I see it as a little extra income,” says Minter, who also manages the kitchen part-time at an Amazon Fresh store. “But I’d like it to grow into something I can pass on to my daughter and grandson.”

An actual grandmother anonymously peddling comfort foods might seem at odds with today’s food world of flashy pop-ups and quasi-celebrity TikTokers making trending reels. But in the quieter, less shiny corners of the internet, a delicious movement has been steadily simmering away. Home cooks across the country are turning to Etsy, not to build personal brands or sell cookbooks but because they genuinely love cooking for others (and hope to earn some extra cash in the process). You can buy everything from crispy lumpia to spinach and feta börek, Liberian jollof rice, and lasagna on the platform. All of these diverse foods share a certain, comfort-food-focused je ne sais quoi—what Minter calls food that “feeds the soul.”

Regular customers who buy food on Etsy say they’re looking for culturally specific flavors, enjoy supporting small businesses, or are seeking goods made with real ingredients over chemical simulacra. Emma Mahoney, 54, was hesitant about ordering a batch of gooey-looking brownies from the platform last year, unsure of the kitchen’s cleanliness. But she’s “not a good cook” and struggles to find artisanal baked goods in her small town of Le Roy, New York, so she went for it. “I was like, ‘Wow,’” she says, describing the fudgy brownies. Since then, Mahoney has ordered chicken and dumplings, peach preserves, biscuits, “wholesome” oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and some “really good” sunflower seed bread from various makers. “You kind of feel like you’re getting a package from your aunt or something,” she says.

In the quieter, less shiny corners of the internet, a delicious movement has been steadily simmering away.

As a chronically homesick Australian in Utah, Etsy food spoke to my craving for far-off connection. It reminded me of the giddy feeling I’d get as a kid when my British pen pal, Louisa, mailed me letters in sloppy, eight-year-old cursive. I found myself scrolling through these homey Etsy shops—collections of unstyled dishes captured unironically by their amateur photographers and enthusiastically marketed with ample exclamation marks—more often than I was googling new restaurants in Salt Lake City. I became fixated on who these people were and why they bothered cooking, freezing, packaging, and shipping their creations to perfect strangers.

Most of the Etsy cooks I spoke to said they have fun doing it, a refreshingly fair-enough reason. For others, the yearning to break bread across the internet comes from somewhere deeper. Ron Daise, 68, sees his Bundt-shaped pound cakes as vehicles for sharing Gullah Geechee history. “At most celebrations, there must be a pound cake served for dessert,” says the author, actor, and baker behind GullahliciousCakes. Daise, who lives in Georgetown, South Carolina, and was born on nearby Saint Helena Island, has written nine books on Sea Islander culture and starred in the ’90s children’s TV series Gullah Gullah Island. When he works a thick batter together or layers his six-flavor Blessins cakes with gold leaf—a nod to the Carolina Gold rice originally cultivated in the region by enslaved Africans—there’s an inevitable piece of his worldview baked into every slice.

Customers don’t need to smell his cakes to sense the heart behind them. “I have Southern roots myself,” says Moon Richmond, a Bay Area millennial in the pharmaceutical industry. Since moving from Mississippi to California, she’s noticed a lack of good pound cakes, so she’s ordered about ten from Daise. Despite the shipping cost—I calculated $27.14 to a randomly chosen San Francisco zip code—on top of the $45 cake, she wants to support a minority-owned business. “It doesn’t hurt that the product is consistently delicious,” Richmond adds.

Nearly two decades ago, Etsy was created for independent artisans. Critics now liken the platform to Amazon, due to a proliferation of AI-generated slogan tees and cheaply produced items. But many home cooks still see it as the best place to sell food. Etsy requires sellers to abide by cottage food laws, which vary by state and usually allow individuals to produce and sell food with fewer regulations than commercial businesses. While a company spokesperson didn’t have specific data on culinary transactions, most sellers I spoke with are seeing increased business.

Most of the Etsy cooks I spoke to said they have fun doing it, a refreshingly fair-enough reason.

Etsy has brought mother-daughter duo Michelle Bethea, 63, and Kimberly Beachum, 42, from Maitland, Florida, closer to their dream of opening a brick-and-mortar café. Through their store, TheFrontPorchCafe, they sell updated versions of Bethea’s grandmother’s recipes, like chicken and dumplings, fried collard greens with smoked turkey, white cheddar mac and cheese, and sweet cream–laced buttermilk biscuits. Though they supplement their Etsy income with real estate and substitute teaching jobs, their business has grown 600 percent since opening in 2020. “A lot of the folks we mail food to talk about the nostalgia and memories it brings back,” Bethea says.

The downsides of Etsy are obvious: Shipping and packing frozen food is not only expensive but notoriously hard on the environment. In addition to handling shipping, sellers need to stock up on supplies like dry ice, vacuum sealers, packing peanuts, freezer bags, and more. One major perk of the platform, say Bethea and Beachum, is the Etsy forums. These Reddit-like threads let sellers pose questions and generally counsel one another through any logistical hurdles, like technical issues with the platform or filing taxes as a business owner.

Despite being formed online, in chat boxes and order forms, the relationships between seller and customer on Etsy can grow very real thanks to a personal touch that’s inherent to buying food from home cooks. Mahoney praises the customer service she’s experienced from Beachum and Bethea, noting how rare this is with big, faceless megacorporations. Mahoney rescues dogs, and one is nearing the end of life. She mentioned this when reordering some biscuits and peach preserves from TheFrontPorchCafe recently—“the best I’ve ever had in my life”—and the mother and daughter sent extra along as condolences. “They wrote back as if they were talking to a real person,” Mahoney says.

These intimate exchanges seem to sustain sellers through challenges like lost packages, irate customers blaming them for shipping delays, and the uncertainties of running a small business. Penny Spina, the baker behind Lakegirlbakes in Wayne, New York, even named a batch of cookies after a regular customer. Frank, who is 74 and in an eclectic rock band in California, consistently ordered her old-fashioned chocolate-and-vanilla checkerboard cookies. “He sends me some of his music,” she tells me, so Spina renamed them “Frank’s Checkerboard Cookies.”

Sometimes, customers even become unofficial taste testers who inspire new dishes. When Richmond had a seller reach out for feedback on a batch of chocolate chip cookies she’d ordered a number of times, she suggested a sandwich version with vanilla cream. The seller loved the idea. “So I tried them, we tweaked a few things, and then she rolled them out,” Richmond says.

I work part time as a brand strategist, and virtually all of the marketing teams I’ve consulted with can only dream of having this type of feedback loop with their customers. Most likely, they never will, which perfectly explains the appeal of ordering your next mac and cheese from Etsy. The delight of discovering an abundance of home-cooked treats on a platform not traditionally associated with food is sort of like realizing the hotel you’re staying in actually has a killer pool. And in a world that feels increasingly fractured, shopping from an every-grandma is a beacon of genuine care and connection.

“We want the customer to know our food really was made with love,” says Beachum. “It wasn’t rushed; it was truly something we wanted to do for them.”