Today we’re talking to veteran blogger, Liz Thomson. Based in Richmond, Liz runs the vegetarian food blog called “I Heart Vegetables.” A self-described “lazy cook,” she’s on a mission to show people that eating healthy can be easy, fun, and tasty. What started out as a hobby is now a full-time career. She creates recipes and content for large and small brands alike and has even published a cookbook full of her inspired vegetarian dishes. In this episode, she shares how she made the jump from her job at Capital One to full-time food blogger, where she gets her recipe inspiration from, and she also has a hot tip for creating a crowd-pleasing holiday side dish. Learn more about how Liz makes interesting and delicious recipes accessible to the average home cook by tuning in today!
Get to Know Liz:
Name: Liz Thomson
Location: Richmond, VA
Years in the food industry: 10 years
Favorite Food: Homemade pizza (We have a pizza oven in our backyard!)
Least Favorite Food: Anything with mushrooms
The last thing I ate and loved: The Cacio e Pepe from Gersi (an Italian restaurant here in Richmond) is absolutely amazing. My husband and I have ordered it too many times to count because it's so delicious
Key Points From This Episode:
Liz provides a brief introduction of herself and her business.
Why Liz believes that there has never been a better time to be a food blogger than 2020.
Some background about the I Heart Vegetables blog and how Liz took it full-time.
How Liz’s job at Capital One prepared her to foster successful partnerships for her blog.
Finding a way to seamlessly blend a companies message with her own and create content that will engage her audience.
Liz shares an example of a strategic partnership she had with an urgent care facility.
Where Liz gets inspiration from – it started with resourcefulness, but now it’s more strategic.
How and where Liz sources local ingredients and includes them in her recipes.
Making interesting recipes obtainable for a home cook has been key to Liz’s growth.
Creating a crowd-pleasing, vegetarian dish for the holidays: Liz describes her wild rice salad.
What inspired Liz to work with food and ultimately make her blog her full-time job
Evolving her photography skills and upgrading her equipment over time.
Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
Click Here for Full Transcript
Liz Thomson 00:00:
When I first started cooking a lot, I would say most of my recipe inspiration came from opening up the pantry or the fridge, seeing what I had on hand, and trying to figure out how to avoid going to the grocery store, and making something with what I had available.”
Georgiana Dearing 00:13:
Welcome to The Virginia Foodie Podcast, where we lift the lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind that good food, good people, and good brands that you know and love. If you’ve ever come across a yummy food brand and wondered, “How do they do that? How did they turn that recipe into a successful business?” Then we’ve got some stories for you.
Welcome back, foodie fans. As we approach the holiday season, I often take a moment to give thanks for friends and family, clients, and colleagues. This year, I want to extend that gratitude to you, the podcast audience. Thank you for coming along on this first season and please stick around because we’ve got good things in store for the coming year.
Today’s conversation is with one of those colleagues that I’m grateful for, Liz Thomson. Based in Richmond, Liz runs the vegetarian food blog, I Heart Vegetables. Liz is a self-described lazy cook, who is on a mission to show people that eating healthy can be easy, fun, and tasty! What started out as a hobby is now a full-time career for her.
She’s published a cookbook and she now creates recipes and content for large and small brands. We talked about how she made the jump from her job at Capital One to full-time food blogger, and she also shares her tip for a crowd-pleasing holiday side dish. Her wild rice salad is as pretty as it is tasty and, if you want to try it, we’ll have link to it in our show notes.
Georgiana Dearing 01:59:
Hi Liz, welcome to the show.
Liz Thomson 02:01:
Good morning, thanks so much for having me.
Georgiana Dearing 02:04:
I’m so glad to have you, thanks for coming on. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Liz Thomson 02:10:
Yeah, I’m Liz Thomson, and I’ve been writing a food blog called I Heart Vegetables for about 10 years now. My site is all about easy, healthy, vegetarian recipes.
Georgiana Dearing 02:24:
I’m going to start, the very first thing is it’s November and we are still in 2020, so the first thing I want to know is, how are you doing? How’s it going in your home, how are you coping?
Liz Thomson 02:38:
We’re hanging in there. It has definitely been a very strange and unique year but, on the bright side, lots of people are cooking at home and so there’s really never been a better time to be a food blogger.
Georgiana Dearing 02:53:
That’s right, there’s such a resurgence in home cooking, so that’s kind of a silver lining for food bloggers.
Liz Thomson 03:00:
Georgiana Dearing 03:01:
I also know that you kind of had some changes going on in your house. You are already a work-from-home person, right? You transitioned recently from working in an office to doing this full-time, do I have that timeline correct?
Liz Thomson 03:15:
Yeah, exactly, I had taken my blog full-time in November of 2019, so I was already working from home, I was used to the work-from-home routine, but my husband and I actually became foster parents at the start of March, about two weeks before everything shut down. Then suddenly we had two kids at home, my husband’s working from home, and so I was used to working from home but I was not used to everyone else being home as well. That has definitely been a major change.
Georgiana Dearing 03:46:
My goodness, you got everything this year in 2020. I have to say, you seem to be handling it graciously because we haven’t really seen much of a blip in the content you're putting out.
Liz Thomson 03:57:
It’s definitely been a wild year but I do feel fortunate to have a job that is so flexible and something that is kind of in-demand right now with everyone looking for recipes.
Georgiana Dearing 04:09:
The reason I had you on is because your photographs are so beautiful, we connected first through Instagram, and a lot of our followers on Virginia Foodie, you know, we focus on local food, and a lot of our followers are also vegetarian. There’s some cross over interest, and then because you were sharing content on Instagram and we’re sharing it, there’s a lot of stuff where we have some cross over.
You and I connected through Instagram first, and then we met in person at a marketing conference a couple of years ago. I was a speaker and you were a panelist. I think the topic that day was around social media and influencer marketing.
Can you talk a little bit just about your blog and about how you’re doing this as a full-time job right now?
Liz Thomson 04:59:
Yeah, I actually started my blog back in 2010, which is crazy that it’s been a decade, and obviously, the influencer industry has just evolved so much, especially just over the last three or four years. I was actually working in social media marketing for Capital One and started to see just more and more opportunities of being able to turn my blog from a hobby into more of a business.
As I started to think a little bit more strategically about my content, and my content strategy, and how I wanted to grow my platforms, and what I wanted to do with them, I started to see more opportunities to partner with brands, partner with different companies to share about their products and to incorporate them into recipes. As it started to evolve there, realized, wow, there’s really something here. This is something that doesn’t necessarily have to just be a hobby. So, as it was growing, I was thinking more and more about how do I turn this into something that really is a full-time career? It’s been a long journey but, like I said, I went full-time in November of 2019.
It’s been about a year, which is crazy, but it’s been really exciting to see just the way that industry has changed and just the way that the industry has evolved.
Georgiana Dearing 06:18:
Well, there’s a couple of things I want to unpack in there, because the first thing you said is you started 10 years ago. 10 years ago, you started blogging, and now it’s full-time. That’s a long trajectory, I think, for a lot of reasons. I mean, people have bills to pay and stepping out on your own was probably a little bit risky and scary, but 10 years, I’m not sure that people think about that when they see all of this content going by, that there is a lot to do to make that a full-time career.
Liz Thomson 06:57:
Yeah, it really is clearly something that was such a passion project, I don’t think there are many things people would work at for 10 years, without making a lot of money at least in the first five or six years. It truly was just a hobby and I think, back then, there really weren’t very many people that were doing it as a job. It truly was just something fun that I did on the side, and then, as I started to see other people kind of turned it into a side hustle or some second income or thinking about it as more of a career, I started to realize okay, there are more opportunities out there than I thought.
It really made me reframe it from, “This is just a fun thing that I do” to, “How can I really hone in on this and become an expert in this field? How can I level up my photography? How can I make sure that I’m being strategic about the types of recipes I create?”
As those things started to grow, it really did become more and more clear that this was a career path that I wanted to go down.
Georgiana Dearing 07:59:
Well, you also had the advantage of working inside a bigger company that had their own goals and strategy going on. I mean, I don’t know, I think sometimes, the average person will look at what’s going on Instagram and think, “Oh, it looks so easy,” but you talked about some words there, like strategy, and making it a business, and those are all things that are more entrepreneurial. Were you able to pull the things you were doing for Capital One and then sort of clip them around for food blogging?
Liz Thomson 08:36:
Yeah, I feel really fortunate that so much of my day job, the things I was learning were around content strategy, and analyzing different metrics, and kind of figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Obviously, the company and the content were really different but a lot of the same principles around where you're investing, and how to make sure the content is really effective, and testing out new platforms, and new types of content on different platforms.
I was really fortunate that so much of what I was doing in my nine-to-five job was teaching me things that I felt could eventually apply to what I was doing for I Heart Vegetables. I think it really made me think more strategically about marketing in general and, now that I’m able to work with brands and companies, thinking through, “Okay, what are they trying to get out of this partnership?” Putting on my hat from the corporate days of working with influencers and thinking about what did we want them to do for us, and what were we trying to get out of it, and how can they take that into my collaborations today?
To make sure that whatever I’m producing for a company or a sponsor is really hitting on what they would consider to be metrics of success. Rather than me thinking, maybe they just want a lot of attention on Instagram, they might be trying to get people to sign up for their email list, so how can they make sure that the content creating is really delivering on what they would consider to be a successful partnership?
Georgiana Dearing 10:04:
When I hear you describe all of that, that is very specifically marketing, and you talked about what you're doing as being influencer marketing, and I think sometimes people get distracted by that influencer side of it, right?
It’s all about me and my ideas, but to really have successful business relationships, you need to be working with people who are kind of feeling the same need that your followers are hungry for, right?
Liz Thomson 10:34:
Exactly. I love when I can have a partnership with a company where we can really collaborate and talk through what are they trying to achieve, what message are they trying to get across, and how does that tie into my content in a really organic and authentic way? I want to make sure that the partnership is delivering on what the brand is looking for, but also is something that my followers are going to be interested in and want to read about it and want to share.
Finding ways where those things work together seamlessly is always the goal.
Georgiana Dearing 11:06:
Yeah, seamlessly is the trick there, right? You do not want to be hitting people over the head with “buy now, buy now, buy now.”
Liz Thomson 11:14:
Exactly. I think there are some really interesting ways that, even with a brand that might not be obvious for my content, for example, I partnered with Patient First, which is an urgent care center, and we did a post about immunity-boosting soup and talked about different foods that can boost your immune system, and different precautions you can take during cold and flu season. Honestly, it’s been one of my most popular posts this year, because people are looking for any way to boost their immune system.
It’s content that my audience loves but also is getting across some of the expertise of this urgent care facility. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a really obvious partnership, but that content can still fit together really well.
Georgiana Dearing 11:57:
I was just going to say, immunity like that is on-trend. Did you create that recipe?
Liz Thomson 12:08:
Yeah, I actually looked at, they had done a blog post on their website about different foods that could help boost immunity. I looked at what ingredients were on that list and how I could work them into a recipe that obviously tastes really good and would be for my followers to me.
It was fun playing around with all those different flavors and ingredients and figuring out, okay, how can I come up with something that incorporates garlic and ginger and you know, all these different flavors into one really delicious recipe.
Georgiana Dearing 12:34:
So that was kind of an assignment creation.
Liz Thomson 12:37:
Georgiana Dearing 12:39:
Where else do you get your inspiration from? Where do you – you know, do you adapt, or what do you do to get your ideas?
Liz Thomson 12:45:
Yes, so, when I first started cooking a lot, I have to say most of my recipe inspiration came from opening up the pantry or the fridge, seeing what I have on hand, and trying to figure out how to avoid going to the grocery store, and making something with what I had available. I think, to some degree, that still plays a role in what I do. If I am like, “Oh I have this can of white beans,” I know other people feel the same way where they’re like, “Okay, what do I do with this can of white beans?”
Sometimes I still use that for inspiration but now that I am doing this as a career, I am a lot more strategic in how I think about the content I’m creating. I do a lot of keyword research to look at what types of recipes are people searching for, where is their gap in those types of recipes, what are realistic terms that I think I can rank for in Google? Now, there is a lot more that goes into it just from a strategy perspective, of making sure that the content I am creating is stuff that people are already searching for, so that I can meet that need.
Georgiana Dearing 13:47:
That is what I am just going to say there, you are trying to meet the need that people are searching for. That is part of that research, right? You can learn a lot by just looking at what is trending online. You’re using that to actually say, “Okay, people want something. Here is how I could deliver an answer for that.”
Liz Thomson 14:10:
Exactly. It is looking at what are things that people are looking for but they might not be able to find, or maybe there is some cookie recipe that is really trendy, but I don’t see a vegan version or I don’t see a gluten-free version. How could adapt this so that the followers that might have dietary restrictions would be able to eat that? Or maybe there is a recipe that looks really good but it’s super complicated, and I know that my readers would not make a recipe that required 10 different specialty ingredients. How can I simplify it so that they can make it with what they have in their pantry?
Georgiana Dearing 14:44:
I like the idea of leveraging like what’s already in the pantry, but Virginia Foodie is also about all local food. We are trying to promote ways that people can get products into their kitchen, or into their home, or in their bellies that are coming from the region. So, I know that a lot of your work happens with bigger brands or national brands, but vegetable in and of themselves are a product category that actually needs to be super fresh.
How and where do you find local ingredients? How are you bringing that into what you are doing?
Liz Thomson 15:22:
Yeah, that is a great question. I feel really fortunate to live in Richmond where it seems like we have so many different grocery stores. It’s like we have every chain you could imagine. Different places have different local vegetables and I am always looking for what’s something new? What is a different vegetable that maybe my readers haven’t tried, but I can make it feel really approachable and simple, so that maybe I could encourage them to try something that they don’t normally think to pick up?
I also think there’s just so many good restaurants that one of the best ways to find new ingredients to use is to try these different restaurants, try some new concepts, some recipes that maybe I have never even heard of before to kind of get some inspiration on, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about using carrots in that way. Maybe I could pick up some rainbow carrots at the grocery store and find a way to add them to a recipe where maybe they are not normally used,” or something like that.
I think, obviously, farmer’s markets are a great spot and it is nice to be able to talk with somebody who is literally growing the produce and has plenty of recommendations and ideas, but I think also just stopping by a new market, stopping by a new grocery store, seeing what is in season and on the shelves, and then thinking through, “How can I incorporate this into either a recipe that feels really familiar to my readers, or helping them find a new way to use something that maybe they haven’t tried before?”
Georgiana Dearing 16:50:
Richmond has a great local food scene and it is interesting to me to hear that you actually do some sort of market research by going to the restaurants around. That’s like crazy to me but what I great idea, like what are the chefs doing? There is so many restaurants that are pulling from local produce. That is kind of cool.
Liz Thomson 17:13:
Yeah, it’s definitely the fun kind of market research. I grew up in the Midwest and I did not eat a very interesting or diverse diet growing up, and I feel like, when I moved to Richmond, my eyes are kind of opened. There’s just so many amazing chefs and so much foodie talent here. Anytime I am feeling a little bit like I need a boost of inspiration, it’s like there is always a new restaurant I could go try.
Georgiana Dearing 17:38:
Yeah, I got to go – I am sorry, we have to eat out tonight. I’ve got some work to do.
Liz Thomson 17:43:
It is a tough job you know?
Georgiana Dearing 17:46:
Well, another thing you’ve said a few times is about trying to make these things approachable to your readers. I like that concept, that is you are not trying to be like so far crazy off the beaten path. You are just trying to make interesting things obtainable for a home cook. I love that idea.
Liz Thomson 18:05:
Yeah, it’s been a really fun way to figure out how to connect with people, especially during 2020, when nobody wants to make a grocery store run for one ingredient that they don’t have. Finding those really easy and approachable recipes I think has really been key to my growth in this year in particular.
Georgiana Dearing 18:26:
Well, this year is really strange. I mean, this episode is airing right before Thanksgiving, which is traditionally all about the turkey and the big family gathering. That is going to be different for a lot of the people this year. With so much focus on sort of turkey that is not – you know the veggies are sort of the add-ons because you’re really going to be binging on starch and turkey, but what do you have like are there ideas that you have?
What are some things that you think would be good ideas for holiday celebrations, either Thanksgiving or Christmas, or how do try and make these at home gatherings feel kind of festive with festive vegetables?
Liz Thomson 19:11:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think our Thanksgiving celebration is going to be much smaller than normal this year but it doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy lots of delicious food. I do not indulge in the turkey but I think that all of the sides are the best thing anyway. So, I don’t feel like I am missing out at all, but I think it is fun to have all of the classic sides. You got to have some mash potatoes. You have to have some green bean casserole.
But I love also finding some new side dishes to bring to the table. I have a recipe for wild rice and butternut squash salad with pomegranate and pistachios, and it is just a little bit unexpected but has a lot of those fall flavors. It is one of those recipes that you can make ahead of time, and it is vegan, and it is gluten-free, so it is one of those things that everybody can enjoy. It doesn’t take up any extra space in the oven when you are trying to get everything ready.
I think it is always fun to try to come up with something a little bit different but also that has a lot of those familiar flavors, so that people are willing to try it and give it a chance.
Georgiana Dearing 20:13:
I actually have everything that you just need in my house right now, except for the pomegranate.
Liz Thomson 20:19:
You may have to make the salad.
Georgiana Dearing 20:21:
I know. I think I am going to have to do that because I’m like, “Oh I have all of that,” and we always, I always brought home a couple pomegranates every year. I just remember my mom introducing me to them, and it’s a fun thing to kind of like – it is a lot of work to get those cute little jewels out. So, that sounds really yummy.
Liz Thomson 20:44:
Georgiana Dearing 20:45:
One thing I always ask my listeners is what inspired you to work in the food industry? I mean, you had a pretty good gig at Capital One, what inspired you to work in food, and run your blog, and then ultimately jump ship?
Liz Thomson 21:01:
Yeah, so I was a vegetarian and I was interested in becoming vegan. I went vegan for six months and I thought, “I am going to start a blog just to kind of keep track of recipes that I like, and what I learned, and how it goes in general.” After six months, I decided that I really missed cheese. So, I went back to being a vegetarian but I found that I really enjoyed blogging and I really liked creating recipes. It was such a fun way to connect with those other people that had similar interests.
I thought, “Okay, well the vegan thing wasn’t for me but I think there’s really something to this whole blogging thing.” I really just kept blogging because it was something really fun. I enjoyed learning about creating recipes. I started to fall in love with food photography, and it really just kind of evolved. As it started to become a bigger part of my life, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to keep it up as a side hustle forever, trying to balance work and what was becoming a second full-time job. Something had to give.
Once I got to the place where I knew I could really turn the blog into a business, I made the jump and I am so glad that I did.
Georgiana Dearing 22:13:
Well so are we. Your photographs are really beautiful. What do you shoot with now? I am just curious.
Liz Thomson 22:20:
I have a Cannon 5D that was an investment, and I absolutely love it. It’s been worth it.
Georgiana Dearing 22:27:
A lot people start out with iPhone photography, and I always try and encourage people maybe start there, just to have the habit of taking photos, and thinking about lighting, and things like that. But then you graduated to digital SLR?
Liz Thomson 22:43:
It’s funny because, when I first started, smart to phone cameras were so terrible compared to what they are today. I think the photos that I was first taking for my blog were on a phone that had a slide out keyboard. So, that is to give you an idea of how old it was. My pictures early on were just absolutely terrible but, you know, you have to get those out. You have to start somewhere. I eventually upgraded to like a point and shoot camera after probably two or three years, but I totally agree.
iPhone photography or smartphone photography, in general, has come such a long way that now I think that is a really good option and a good place for people to start when they’re not ready to invest in a really expensive, fancy camera.
Georgiana Dearing 23:27:
Particularly for social, there are times when you really, really need like good high res photographs, and a food stylist, and all of those things, which, as a blogger, you’re all those things yourself.
Liz Thomson 23:41:
I get to wear all the hats.
Georgiana Dearing 23:42:
Yeah, you wear all the hats, but yeah, I agree you can start with the smartphone. One of the things I need to do before we go is let people know where to find you and see these great photos on Instagram and your blog. Could you name all of those destinations?
Liz Thomson 24:02:
Yeah, you can find me on Instagram @Iheartveggies and you can find me on my blog at iheartvegetables.com.
Georgiana Dearing 24:09:
And that is heart spelled all the way out on Instagram.
Liz Thomson 24:12:
Georgiana Dearing 24:13:
Yes, I know because you can’t put that heart symbol in your web address.
Liz Thomson 24:19:
Georgiana Dearing 24:21:
Well, thanks so much for sharing your story today, Liz. I really enjoyed it. It was great talking to you, always. I love to see your face. This was good, although no one can see it, but that’s what we are doing. So thanks so much.
Liz Thomson 24:34:
Yeah, this was so fun. Thank you so much for having me.
Georgiana Dearing 24:37:
We’ll talk again soon. Bye-bye.
Liz Thomson 24:40:
Georgiana Dearing 24:42:
Thanks for listening and if you want to learn more about how to grow your own food brand, then click on “grow my brand” at vafoodie.com. If you’re a lover of local food, then be sure to follow us. We are @vafoodie on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Join the conversation and tell us about your adventures with good food, good people, and good brands.