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The BA Test Kitchen: When the Backlash Becomes the Story

By Anna Richard | July 6, 2020

bon appetit backlash

This has been a tumultuous time for everyone, brands included. The wrong response is worse than no response, and in many cases goes viral for its tone-deafness. It can be easy to just be afraid of the backlash, and get stuck at that surface level. But it’s more important than ever to understand why situations go wrong, and what caused the reaction. 

One great example that encapsulates a lot of the recent brand crises is the controversy surrounding Bon Appétit this month. For those who don’t know, food magazine Bon Appétit has recently seen major success on their YouTube channel. Their channel features a variety of shows. Each show has a different staff member as the host doing something recipe-related, with other members of the test kitchen popping onscreen to weigh in. More than any individual member, people seemed attracted to the dynamic of the whole workplace. The unscripted moments were the ones that went viral in gifs and clips all over social media. It felt like a place everyone would want to work. 

This outside perception was lucrative – at the time of this blog post, they had just over 6 million channel subscribers and well over a billion total views. Estimates for ad revenue range into the millions. The YouTube channel was easily the most profitable branch of BA, a magazine that otherwise struggles to attract an audience on their website and in print. However, this perception imploded early this month when staff members of color disclosed that they were not being compensated fairly. BA staffer Sohla El-Waylly spoke out first. She revealed that even with more than 15 years of experience, she was being paid less than white chefs who’d been working less than half as long. 

More information followed the initial bombshell, including several articles with dozens of staff that detailed a long-standing internal culture problem that went all the way to the top. BA Editor in Chief Adam Rapoport stepped down after many former and current staff members spoke out about his history of racist behavior. Even now, several weeks later, former fans are now calling for a boycott of content until all the BA personalities are paid equally. Most of the test kitchen staff are on strike with the same goal. 

Seems like an easy fix, right? Fix the pay disparities and stop the bleeding, then begin to work on more inclusive company culture. In the end, it would make them a better company. Instead, BA management have made vague comments about needing to “do better.” They have not made any concrete changes after three weeks. The staff members are still on strike. Fans are still boycotting.

At this point, it’s likely BA will never see their former success even if they manage to retain their staff. The perception of the test kitchen as an escape is ruined for good. And all of this happened because of the response to the initial backlash, not the backlash itself. 

This situation was totally avoidable. If BA management listened to their employees and audience, they could’ve realigned with their position and improved for the future. If they owned up to their behavior, they could’ve salvaged their reputation. And if they’d treated their staff fairly, none of this would’ve even happened. Instead the inner reality, a culture of nepotism and inequality, leaked out. It always does. 

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