Andrea Castrovillari has been a content creator since the tender age of 12, and in college, she essentially ran the student newspaper. Decades of experience in journalism and then later in fundraising gave her the essential skills she would need to bring success to her new project: a food blog.
Cooking with Mama C went live in 2014 and has become Andrea’s labor of love. A combination of heart, expertise, SEO, and blood, sweat, and tears brought in more than 1.5 million page views in 2022 and an average of $9k per month.
Keep reading to find out:
- How her professional experience prepared her for blogging
- Why she created her food blog
- How and when she started earning money
- How she views her followers
- What happens when she’s approached by potential buyers
- The marketing strategy she uses that works well
- How she learned about SEO
- How she uses Google Search Console
- Her content creation process
- Her approach to her email list
- The tools and resources she recommends
- Her main challenge
- Her greatest accomplishment
- The biggest mistake she’s made
- Her advice for other entrepreneurs
Meet Andrea Castrovillari
I live in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. I’m 54 years old and have been married to my husband for 30 years.
We have a son and daughter in their upper ‘20s. We recently became empty nesters when our daughter got married at the end of April.
I am the main caregiver for my elderly parents, helping them 15-20 hours a week (on weekdays), unless there is an urgent need for more of my time. My mom is on dialysis, so I drive her and take care of my dad while she’s at all of her appointments.
I’m a former journalist and editor who’s been creating content since I was 12 years old. That’s 42 years, in case anyone’s counting!
Back in college at Ohio University, I was editor of The POST, the daily, independent student newspaper. I led a staff of 100, including teams of photographers, graphic designers, reporters, and editors. We had 16,000 copies printed per day.
Oh, how I wish I had that team of rockstars around me now!! We had the best-of-the-best talent from around the country. It cracks me up that now I’m producing an online publication that has reached millions of people, but it’s just me and up to two other part-time contractors for the most part.
After I left the journalism field, I got into fundraising. I worked in fundraising for 25 years, raising tens of millions of dollars for charitable causes. I spent half of those years working as a full-time employee on and off and the other half running my grant-writing and consulting business from home.
In the early days, I raised funds for world-class cultural organizations such as The Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Then I focused largely on economic development in northeast Ohio. I spent several years raising funds for broadband initiatives, never imagining that I’d run an online business someday.
Why She Created Cooking with Mamma C
I’m first-generation Italian-American on my mom’s side. My mom is from Naples, home of the best cooks in the world!
I grew up eating fabulous food prepared by my mom, Nonna, and aunts, and I took it all for granted. I never really helped except to be a taste tester and tell my mom what the food needed. I’ve always had excellent taste buds, even as a child, and would notice if she changed one ingredient.
Once at a fancy restaurant when I was about six years old, I tasted a hint of orange in the salad dressing. I asked the server if there was orange zest in it. She said she had no idea but would ask the chef. She came back and affirmed there was, indeed, orange zest in it.
“How did you KNOW?!!!” she asked me incredulously.
As my mom got older, I realized someone needed to document the family recipes or we’d lose them forever. Nothing was measured or written down. I thought about putting together a binder of recipes to share with loved ones.
Meanwhile, I was spending 25 hours a week reading food blogs, planning meals, cooking, and grocery shopping, just to feed my family. Even when I worked outside of the home, I cooked dinner every night. I always used recipes but wrote notes all over them with my changes.
I began to fantasize about starting my own food blog, but never took it seriously. I thought about it for four years before doing anything.
Then, in 2013, I could not shut off my brain. It would create content for my imaginary blog in my head, all day, every day. I’d fall asleep at night mid-sentence, wake up suddenly at 2 a.m., and my brain would pick up right where it had left off.
It became a burden to carry all this content in my head. Every day, there was more and more, and I worried about forgetting it and losing it. One day, I decided to sit down at the computer and start typing out the words stored in my brain for months.
When I suddenly found myself with no clients after leaving a job to do consulting work, I thought I might as well start this food blog. My kids’ friends called me “Mamma C,” so there was never a question as to the blog’s title. I spent months researching, planning, and designing Cooking with Mamma C.
Finally, on June 1, 2014, in a heroic act of tough love, my husband stood over me and yelled “HIT PUBLISH NOW!!!”
I knew the time had come.
I hit “publish” on that Sunday and announced it on Facebook and LinkedIn. My site had 25 visitors within minutes. We watched as traffic trickled in all day. The rest is history, I guess.
I knew blogs could make money and was hoping I’d break even after a year. I spent money on equipment, hosting, training, and food. I’d never heard of SEO and was just creating whatever I wanted, focusing on personal stories rather than in-depth recipe information.
It took 18 months to break even. Then I earned a few dollars in profit from AdSense. My site never ranked on Google, but I got traffic from Pinterest and Facebook.
In January 2016, I was among the first 200 publishers to get accepted into Mediavine when it launched its ad management service. That’s the point when my blog became a real business. I’ve been with Mediavine ever since.
Cooking with Mamma C’s tagline always has been “Family-Tested Recipes from my Italian-American Kitchen.” I feature Italian recipes, Italian-American recipes, recipes with an Italian twist, and American favorites.
I have resisted niching down to solely Italian recipes because I have lots of content from the early years that is more American, and some of those recipes are quite popular. I do focus on Italian recipes for anything new.
People have come to trust Cooking with Mamma C for the best recipes and know they will receive personal attention if they have a question.
I have a wonderful community of followers on Facebook, including many people who have been making my recipes for years. It is a relatively small page of 11,000, but it gets great engagement. I care about each and every person I serve with my recipes.
In 2022, more than 1.5 million individuals visited my site, which gets about 200,000 pageviews a month. I have nearly 300 recipes published, including many posts that need updating with better photos and more information. It’s a relatively small site, and I want to grow it with the right team.
I’ve been approached several times by various potential buyers, but this is a family business, and I intend to keep it in the family. Maybe one of my future grandchildren will run it someday!
How Much Money Andrea is Making
I’m currently averaging about $9k a month in ad revenue, despite working limited hours due to wedding planning (just finished!) and my caregiving duties. Additionally, affiliate income and e-book sales provide a small amount of revenue.
I have not expanded beyond Amazon for affiliate programs and need to do that at some point.
I have one e-cookbook that I produced to get my feet wet in self-publishing. I did lots of research (surprise!) and wanted to learn how to sell a product on my site. I’ve exceeded my sales goals and have a good template for future e-books.
I’m not sure if I will create additional e-cookbooks, but I’m leaving that open as a possibility. Anything that takes time away from publishing content on my website can ultimately hurt overall revenues. I have to strike the right balance and ensure my site doesn’t suffer in the meantime.
During a “normal” week, I work 25 hours. If there is a medical emergency in my family (four times in the last six months), I work maybe 10 hours that week.
But I think about my business all the time!
Her Top Marketing Strategy
My main strategy is testimonials. Let the people you serve vouch for you. I collect testimonials from emails, comments on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and of course, reviews on my website. I use these in social media posts, my newsletter, web stories, and sales copy for my e-cookbook.
I also document media mentions and the media outlets/sites where my recipes have appeared.
These are the same techniques I used in my 25-year fundraising career.
Always promote the value your website/business provides to your readers/customers. How will people benefit from your offerings?
Of course, you have to have the goods—the excellent quality of your product/services—to back it up. Never exaggerate.
In my fundraising days, I had to tell organizations I couldn’t sell something that was broken. They needed to fix it! Then the donations/investments/sales would follow.
So, the best marketing strategy is having outstanding content, products, and/or services
and then making sure people are aware of it and will help you spread the word.
The Importance of SEO
Social media carried my business in the early years, but SEO has been the most important traffic driver since 2020.
I learned about SEO by taking the free Ahrefs course, always listening to podcasts, and paying attention to advice in food blogging Facebook groups. I make it a point to hear perspectives from 3 to 5 different experts because I’ll find helpful nuggets from each one.
Sometimes, people are not in agreement, and I defer to what I’m seeing on my own website. I know the changes I’ve made and the results that occurred. I’ve got nine years of data.
I rely quite a bit on data from Google Search Console. When I update old posts, I review years of data showing the keywords that post showed up for in search results. I also note any keywords relevant to my niche but for which I don’t have a post.
Backlinks are important to establish authority and be seen as an expert in your niche. Food bloggers often create roundups of recipes on a certain topic and will put out a request for submissions. I monitor the Facebook groups dedicated to those at least weekly and submit links to my relevant recipes for consideration.
I have not actively sought out links from publications, but I do respond to requests for interviews like this one when it’s a good fit.
Andrea’s Content Creation Process
This is always a work in progress. In the old days, I did one recipe post from start to finish over a couple of days. Then, as food blogging became more involved and competitive, it became necessary to break down the components and try to get help with parts of it for multiple posts at a time.
For anyone not in the food-blogging niche, the components include keyword research, recipe research, recipe development and testing, food photography, photo editing, (video production and editing if needed), post writing, social media graphics creation, web story creation, and social media posting.
Then, adding internal links, trying to get backlinks, etc. Any food blog producing lots of content has a team of people. You need to become a media company.
I’ve mostly done all these things on my own but have hired out video production, Pinterest marketing, photo editing, and post drafts that I spoon-fed and edited heavily anyway.
More recently, I’ve started hiring out photography for some old posts that need to be updated. That makes more sense than hiring out the writing. I’m gifted in writing and editing, but photography does not come easily to me.
My strategy includes updating old posts, especially when I see them rising in Google rankings despite never being optimized. I also create new posts when I can, around the topics I see in my search console.
Her Email List
I have a small email list of about 5,000. I’ve culled it several times so I don’t have to pay to send emails to anyone who hasn’t opened them for months. My open rate is currently 53%, and my click-through rate is nearly 6.5%. My open rates are higher when I have new recipes to share.
I use Mediavine’s Grow to collect new email subscribers. I have lots more work to do in this area.
Her Favorite Resources
If you want to launch a food blog, I recommend signing up for Food Blogger Pro. That’s what I did nearly 10 years ago when I was starting out. The online trainings walk you through everything step-by-step to get your website up and running.
If you’re in a different niche, you might consider training from Project 24, run by Income School. Do your homework to find the best training program for your niche. Be willing to make a monetary investment to learn to do things right from the beginning.
Andrea’s Must-Have Tools
My top tools are definitely Ahrefs Webmaster Tools, Google Search Console, and Keywords Everywhere.
Ahrefs’ free webmaster tools are the best-kept secret. If you can’t afford a pricey paid plan, immediately sign up for this tool and connect it to your search console.
Then, click on everything you see in the dashboard. Try out all the links! You’ll be blown away by how much information is there. You can filter your results too, so play with those filters.
Google Search Console only gives you the top 1,000 results, but Ahrefs goes beyond that. And, while GSC shows a keyword position without telling you whether it’s due to an image, web story, or post that’s ranking, Ahrefs shows you exactly what’s ranking.
However, the free Ahrefs tool only provides the last 30 days of data. That’s where Google Search Console comes in. It provides historical data, going way back to the beginning of my website.
The Keywords Everywhere browser extension also is extremely helpful. When I’m in Google Search Console reviewing search results, KE shows the volume of each keyword coming up. It’s important to have that context. It also shows the volume when you Google a keyword and will show all the keywords for which a post on Google is ranking.
Her Biggest Challenge
I take responsibility for often being the holdup in my business. Besides being a stickler for quality, I’ve had many challenges and used them as an excuse for putting work on hold.
Food blogging is physically demanding (climbing chairs for photography, chopping food and cooking it, washing piles of pots and pans, etc.) and I had physical limitations for years due to intense back pain, carpal tunnel in both wrists and a trigger finger.
Thankfully, I had two life-changing surgeries at the end of 2020. After a year of recovery, I regained full use of my hands, and my back pain was gone after living with it daily for six years.
My challenge continues to be bringing on the right people at the right price to help me create more content so Cooking with Mamma C’s audience will be better served.
Her Proudest Accomplishment
I’ve built a business that supports my family in ways I never imagined. I can’t be “on the job” as much as I’d like, but my website is working 24/7 and providing a full-time income.
2021 was a significant year. My mom went into kidney failure at the beginning of 2021 and I had to cut back my working hours. Mid-year, I needed to reduce my business expenses to start saving money to help pay for our daughter’s 2023 wedding and bridal shower and to purchase a van to transport my parents.
I decided to eliminate spending on contractors during that season of my life. I stopped spending on Pinterest marketing, videos (except for four videos in December 2021), and content creation. I ceased posting on Instagram. (I know, right?!!!)
It was just me, myself, and I focusing on SEO until October 2022. And guess what? My 2022 gross revenue was 77% higher than in 2021, and traffic grew by 37%!
What She Wishes She Knew When She Started
I wish I knew about SEO nine years ago when I was starting out. I was just sharing recipes and telling stories without any game plan. Although, I have to admit it was more fun and relaxing to blog in those days!
Andrea’s Biggest Mistake
My biggest mistake was not getting an SEO audit sooner. There were people saying you need one, and others saying you didn’t. I chose the answer I wanted to hear. I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars.
But my traffic began taking a nosedive in 2019, despite my efforts to update my content. It was so demoralizing. What was I doing wrong? Why wasn’t my site growing?
I began wondering if something was technically wrong on the back end of my site. I finally realized I needed to have someone “check under the hood.” It was time to bite the bullet and have a technical and SEO audit.
My audit in October 2020 was a turning point. There were some problems with my website due to things I’d changed over the years. In one case, there was duplicate coding from a prior host.
I should have gotten the audit years earlier.
I spent 2021 implementing many of the recommendations and saw results in 2022. My 2022 traffic was 66% higher than 2020 traffic.
Her Advice for Other Entrepreneurs
Focus on quality. Focus on your unique value proposition. What do you bring to the table that others don’t? In a world of ChatGPT and the like, what human element can you bring to make your brand stand out?