Meet Abigail Koffler, a freelance food writer on a mission to help you avoid sad desk lunches and find great restaurants.
Learn more about her professional path, how she started her weekly food newsletter This Needs Hotsauce, and her best advice for anyone who wants to make a big change but isn’t sure how to start.
Tell us about your professional path.
I grew up really focused on going to a good college and getting a good job. I was really good at foreign languages and loved to travel so I assumed it would be in some kind of international work, maybe in diplomacy or a nonprofit. I went to a college with a huge preprofessional focus and felt really pushed into a narrow realm of careers. I wound up studying history, which improved my research and writing skills and helped me think more structurally about everything that happens (I always want to place things in context). I interned at nonprofits throughout college, including an internship in Mexico City that I absolutely loved. I also worked as the food editor at our campus Arts & Culture magazine and I still remember interviewing a coffee shop owner before 6 am with my co-editor. We wanted to do “a day in the life” feature and we were so tired after.
When I graduated, I became a Princeton in Latin America fellow. The fellowship pairs recent graduates with nonprofits in Latin America and I had the honor of spending a year in rural Guatemala working at an indigenous weaving association. I loved being there and saw the organization’s impact in the community. It was super grassroots and specific and my role was really as a translator, trying to get their work to a different audience who had funds to support it. I still stay in touch with people there and got to visit last year, which was the best. If you’re ever thinking of visiting, do it!
When I moved back to New York in 2016, I really struggled to find a job. I worked retail at a bakery for a few months, waking up at 5 am and interned at another nonprofit. (Side note: I was working at the bakery the day after the election and I’ve never gotten more tips in my life. We sold out of everything by 3 p.m. and I”ll never forget it.) I finally got a job at a nonprofit that did microfinance for women in the United States. On paper, it seemed like a continuation of the work I had done abroad, helping women entrepreneurs. Within a few weeks, I knew it was not a fit. The organization was very corporate, we were very underpaid, and the male finance team bullied the mostly female development team in meetings. We raised money primarily from the banks and hedge funds that are partially responsible for the inequalities we were trying to solve and it felt wrong.
In October 2017, I started This Needs Hot Sauce, my weekly food newsletter. I wrote it on Sunday nights. By that point, I was already dreaming about pivoting to food and had sent some cold applications. My resume wasn’t getting any response since I had no post-college writing experience so I figured I would write for myself. I’ve always been the person in my friend group who gets asked for restaurant recommendations. The following spring, I got laid off from my nonprofit job. I remember being so relieved when my boss called me into her office. Instead of looking for another nonprofit job, I decided to try writing. I used my newsletter to get my first paid assignment (for $20 by the way) and things grew from there. I also got a part-time job to help pay bills.
I’m close to the two-year mark of freelancing and I’ve grown so much. One big vote of confidence came when I published my first story on Eater in November 2018. It was a dream publication and still feels surreal. My friends also took out an ad for my newsletter for my birthday, which was the kindest vote of confidence in my work. I’ve helped publications like Food & Wine with research, done marketing for Champagne companies, made many freelance friends, and written about the most inspiring business owners (restaurants are my happy place). I’m also working on a novel with one of my best friends about dating and friendship in your early twenties.
What fuels your soul and makes your heart sing?
I believe in community, elevating small businesses, especially those run by women, immigrants, and POC. I feel absolute joy when I see people meeting each other and finding connections at an event or dinner I’ve organized. I believe in the power of stories and love the feeling of capturing someone’s essence or why in an article.
I believe in paying people fairly for their work (always ask for more, ladies). I believe in feedback and treating people well. I believe in therapy. I believe in believing in yourself, though I”m always working on that.
In the past six months, I’ve also been reading a lot about work culture and I realize how little I jive with a very corporate culture, which doesn’t always reward creativity or efficiency. I recommend Anna Codrea-Rado’s newsletter for more on this topic. I know I might not be freelance forever, but in the future, I think I have a better sense of what culture would work for me.
My newsletter is about cooking, dining out and making the most of it and that’s what I want to do in any situation—make the most of it.
My happy place is at the bar of a restaurant with a glass of wine and either oysters or some cheesy appetizer. I’m with one of my favorite people and I have no idea what time it is. I also love new supermarkets, long walks, and great reads.
Are there any misconceptions about what you do?
A lot of people assume I’m a restaurant critic because I write about restaurants, but critics have a very different role. They anonymously visit a place multiple times before writing a review. I report stories where I’m speaking to the owners and researching a restaurant in addition to visiting if I can.
The media industry is also super challenging so don’t go into it if you’re hoping to make large amounts of money. I don’t have any debt, which is a huge privilege, and that definitely makes it possible for me to work in this space.
What is a typical day like for you?
Each day is a little different so I think of things in terms of weeks (a concept I got from Ann Friedman). Each week, I spend two days working part-time. The rest of the time includes pitching stories, meeting deadlines, sometimes brand work including conference calls or virtual meetings. I try to work out at least three times a week and usually attend an event or two at night. Since I spend a lot of time alone during the day, I try to set up plans with friends at night so I have some company. Sometimes I pick a day and work with another freelance friend at a coffee shop, which is so much fun. I recently joined the Wing and I’m loving having a real place to go each day.
When have you failed and what did you learn from that experience?
I’ve had a few situations where a story has not worked out due to forces beyond my control, sometimes after working on it for months. Each time I’ve gotten really upset and started to blame myself or take it as a sign that I’m not cut out for this. I’m working on focusing less on the negative and remembering what I can and can’t control, but it’s hard. I also want to practice abundance, in terms of opportunities and money. I know there’s a lot out there and I want to seek it out and attract it.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Save money and believe in yourself. I use an app called Digit to save money and that made the jump to freelance easier. Other than that, remember to keep working on what you’re interested in even if it’s not making you money. And don’t be afraid to share it with others, even if it’s friends at first. Your passion will shine through. I would also tell myself it’s okay to want a different kind of life than you thought you did. The change is part of the beauty!
Do you have a morning routine?
My morning routine is nothing fancy. My boyfriend wakes up really early so I don’t set an alarm. I journal on Monday mornings and make my weekly to-do list. Most mornings I eat oatmeal for breakfast and either read a little bit or listen to a podcast. It helps to not go straight from bed to the computer.
What are your go-to resource recs?
If you’re interested in freelance life, you must sign up for Anna Codrea-Rado’s newsletter, The Professional Freelancer. I also love this Toni Morrison essay I read in the New Yorker a few years ago. I ripped out the page and taped it to my wall during a particularly rough time at my nonprofit job. I love She Spends (both the newsletter and Facebook group) for money tips, negotiation tactics, and a great community.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on growing my newsletter, especially the paid edition, which I launched last October. I want to continue to give valuable ideas and grow the community through our events. I’m also working on a novel and hope to have a draft by the end of summer.
Where can we find you online?
Thank you so much, Abigail!