Think of a job in the food business and Nicole Gaffney—a.k.a. Coley—has likely had it. Since dropping her 9-5 job in 2010 and beginning a catering business, she’s been a contestant on “Food Network Star,” opened her own smoothie and acai shop, Soulberri, in her hometown of Brigantine, NJ and even published her cookbook, “The Art Of The Smoothie Bowl.” Along this journey, Coley has captivated audiences online via her blog Coley Cooks, where fans and everyday cooks can find Coley’s amazing recipes.
We chatted with Coley to learn more about how she’s built her businesses by channeling her passion for cooking with a little help from the web.
Tell me how you got started in the food and drink space.
I’ve been involved with cooking pretty much my whole life. I grew up in an Italian family and we got introduced to cooking at a really young age. I really took to it and always wanted to be a chef when I grew up.
I had worked a couple jobs in sales that I wasn’t loving and previously had always worked in the food & drink industry really since my first job scooping ice cream. I finally decided that I needed to pursue it.
It was in 2010 I quit everything and I went to culinary school and I started a private chef business. I live at the Jersey store so we get a huge influx of people in the summertime. I found myself obscenely busy in the summer and unable to enjoy anything and it was just crickets in the winter. I’ve always been a fan of food blogs and wanted to start one as a hobby. It was an outlet for me to focus on the foods that I love to cook.
It was a year or two after I started my blog that I went on the TV show “The Next Food Network Star” and that opened up a lot of doors for me. About six months after the show had ended, I had stopped doing catering / personal chef [work] and was focused on blogging and my YouTube channel and it’s been all uphill from there.
What does an average day look like for you now?
The cool thing about what I do is that everyday is a little bit different. I try to wake up around 7 a.m. to work out, have my coffee, check emails and social media. By around 10 a.m. I settle in and work on my blog, if I'm posting a new recipe I'll edit some pictures, or do some writing and work on recipes.
I have the smoothie shop (SoulBerri) so we have meetings with the managers, to see how things are going. Then I’ll make a trip to the grocery store to pick up what I need for dinner later. I try to do my food photography later in the day: (1) because the lighting is better and (2) because it’s what we are having for dinner.
I also do quite a bit of work for a major shopping network, representing two different companies on air a couple times a week. So for those episodes I’ll get all my hair and make up ready—nowadays we aren’t going to the studio so I’ll get all the food prepped, the kitchen cleaned up and ready to record. That’s usually some time late in the afternoon so after that, I’ll make dinner, clean up and watch some Netflix with my puppy.
Were there mentors along your path? What did you learn from them?
Bobby Flay has been a mentor to me. I met him on the set of “Food Network Star,” he was one of our judges and he actually has a restaurant in Atlantic City which is five minutes from me. He comes here to do events every so often so I’d go to his events and eventually we developed a friendship.
He’s given me so much great advice and explained the industry to me more, pulling back the curtains. He’s been a great friend and a great mentor and I look up to him a lot. When it comes to celebrity chefs, I don’t know if there’s anyone much bigger than Bobby.
How do you measure return on investment?
It’s mostly getting traffic to my blog because I’m making money on ad revenue. The more traffic that I can get to my blog the better. When it comes to working with different brands and getting sponsorship they just want to see that you have a big following and know that you are getting a certain amount of page views per month or followers on social media
Are there particular blogs that you follow and inspire the type of content that you look to put out there?
Yeah Definitely! I started blogging because I was such a big fan of blogs, there are so many big ones that a lot of people know. Smitten Kitchen. Deb, everything she posts looks so good. I feel like we have the same exact taste in food so she’s constantly inspiring me.
Also Half Baked Harvest which is run by Keegan Gerrard—her photography is so beautiful and artistic, it’s been really inspiring to me with my own food photography. I’m constantly learning new techniques with food styling and lighting. It’s cool to look at what other people are doing and being artistically inspired by that.
What resources do you use to learn more about blogging?
There’s a blog called Pinch of Yum and they’re one of my favorites. Great recipes but they also have blogging resources for people that are looking to become food bloggers. Pinch of Yum also has a photography course and that’s one of the first courses that I took when I started really getting serious about blogging. So easy for me to get started to learn about food photography. Really get in there and practice because if you're not practicing you're never going to learn anything.
How have you accommodated to remote blogging? What type of equipment do you recommend people get if they are on a limited budget and starting their own project?
I’m just using my computer for Skype sessions. One thing that network appearances often require is being hardwired to the internet with an ethernet cord because you do have such a limited amount of time to be on air. If you do have something that’s really important, make sure you're hardwired in. Also lighting is really important, natural light is great but it’s also so up and down, you don’t know what you're going to get and it changes when the sun goes behind a cloud. So investing in a decent light is worth it. A good headphone or microphone set is also really good to get as well.
What’s next for you in the short term? Are there any larger projects that you're working on that you’re looking forward to sharing?
This one’s on a personal level but my husband and I are building a house. My husband is an architect and this has been a dream of ours for a long time. We bought a lot of land on the water last year and we’ve been in the design process. We’re actually going to be breaking ground next week which is really exciting.
I want to make sure I include a lot of that in my content and share that with my readers and followers because it’s something that people are interested in. Especially the kitchen design, a few years back we redid the kitchen in our current house and I shared that content with my followers and they really liked it.
Once we’re in the new house I'm excited to ramp up my content creation even more and get back into creating videos because we’ll be in a brand new house on the water that will be super modern and Scandinavian, unique and I’m going to want to show it off so I cannot wait!
Last question. If you could have one meal as your last meal what would that be?
There’s so many things that I love! Chicken milanese which is a thin breaded crispy chicken cutlet, with a simple arugula salad with fresh tomatoes, lots of lemon, shaved parm. Now that I'm thinking of that it sounds kind of boring—who wants to eat a salad for their last meal! Maybe it’d be a really good burger and fries—can’t go wrong with that!