Coffee, Champagne & Conversation With Michelle Williams
COFFEE OR CHAMPAGNE?
Which do you drink first? If you’re Michelle Williams, you opt for both. She’s the talented lady behind the popular foodie website called…yep, you guessed it, Coffee & Champagne. What started out as a hobby (and a wedding blog) has turned into a full-fledged business. The most inspiring part? She did it without relying on social media. This New York native has been quietly building up a huge following over the past two years through her playful yet informative dining recaps as well as her inventive recipes.
Rather than turn to Snapchat and Instagram Stories to share her eating escapades, Williams resorts to a somewhat lost art form (in the tech world anyway) – short blurbs about her entire experience sprinkled with a few really beautiful images. Each post is quick, to the point, descriptive, and relatable. You feel like taking Michelle with you to all of your meals.
Besides getting to dine at some of the top restaurants in New York City, she also gets to travel, collaborate with brands, and interact with chefs on a regular basis. I got to sit down with Michelle at our mutual favorite Upper East Side bar, The Penrose. Here’s what she had to say about her journey from blogger to entrepreneur.
When did you start C&C?
Technically, I started 5 years ago but at that point it was a hobby and wasn’t about food at all, it was a wedding site. In the year before my wedding, I started working at ABC taking control of all of their Daytime Television’s digital presence. When I was hired, to work specifically on The View, The Chew, One Life To Live, All My Children, General Hospital, I was told I was overqualified and that I should pick up a hobby for my downtime. So, I planned my wedding! Then I got married and had nothing to do. I started Coffee & Champagne then as a first person perspective on how to plan your own wedding based on all the knowledge that I thought was useful from planning my own wedding but ultimately it was useless for me. I got bored. I’m not very girly and I maxed out. That’s when it broadened into a lifestyle blog all about me. Eventually I narrowed it down to focus solely on food.
How did you come up with the name Coffee & Champagne?
It all started on my honeymoon taking a trip on the Eurostar across Italy. We splurged and went first class and on a very early train ride this Italian woman pushed over a cart and in a very thick accent offered me “coffee or champagne”. I smiled and said “and.” Belly laughing, I knew she got my joke. It just stuck with me. Plus, I love brunch. The idea or feeling like a cycle of the day of a New Yorker– start with coffee and end with champagne, wake up and live it over and over. Someone recently told me it’s also everything between the two. In the past, people told me to change the name because it made no sense. Screw you! It made sense to me. I kept it. I love it and I’m never gonna change it. It’s funny as time flies and my brand grows, everyone I meet loves the name!
How did you come up with the design for your site?
Being that I come from a design background, personally designing my site was super important for me. I knew I wanted to have a lot of control over my website so I designed a custom site and hired a developer friend of mine to build it all from scratch both the backend cms and the font end, aka what you see when you visit the CoffeeAndChampagne.com. That was important. I wanted the option to be able to change it seasonally or every couple of years. When it comes to colors, I knew I wasn’t a bright pink kind of person, no I’m more brass and wood and then let's add a homey earth feel because I’m NY born and raised. It all feels like I identify with it, and it feels like a restaurant. I wanted a light clean site where my imagery popped. Clean. Not over the top, more subtle. I wanted to just focus on content vs. color scheme. Bronze and gold mixed with deep burgundy spoke to me. They mixed well with nail colors which matters because my hands are in a lot of photos.
What’s a typical day/night for you?
There was definitely a time when I was saying yes to everything. Being that I designed my site around my photos and I can’t get the best photos at night, I started reevaluating when I should visit restaurants. So, unless the event is like an amazing one-off thing, or I know people going who I want to spend time with, I’ll often say no. There are nights where I’ve committed to six events. There are days where I say no to everything because I am overwhelmed. I need a balance. If I get invited to a dinner, I tell them I’d love to come back for lunch to get better photos and to write about them. I want people to know my experience there. There are moments, at restaurant events where ten people sit at a long table eat a family meal or there’s a set up a station where everyone takes the same photos. It’s exciting but you’re herding me and I'm not even tasting the food or talking about service or space. I can’t do much with that other than take a picture for Instagram. I won’t write about what has been coined an “influencer event” because there is no possible way I’ve had the experience the restaurant caters to everyone walking in their doors.
That’s something I believe in, in general. I work with people, products, and restaurants that I believe in because it shows. If I work with brands that don’t appeal to me, people will know and then won’t trust me. So I’ll say no to clients. If I really don’t like the product, I tell them I can’t do the job or I’ll rip up the check because once you lose your audience you lose everything. It’s hard.
What do you want to change or add to C&C?
I want to add video. Since I have a video background, I got really sick of it and I started rebelling against it and thought it was a waste of my energy because it’s so time consuming. But I was wrong. It has a ton of value.
Are you on Snapchat?
I quit Snapchat. As a one person business, I felt it was foolish move because it gives away too much of what I was doing when I was doing it. By the time you put it up, it's old. I like to spend time living in the moment and learning and found that being on my phone even more was taking away from that. I genuinely love spending time with people and wanted to focus my attention on that.
Best U.S. foodie city?
Oh, god, that's a fun question. I love Chicago's budding food scene. Though, when I went to Austin last year for SxSW, I couldn't get over the food truck culture they had out there. I was lining up to try them all out and yet here in New York, I never seem to stop for them. It's different out there, it's young and fun, and I love that!
Go to cocktail?
Champagne, but I guess that's not a cocktail. I love a strong dark & stormy or a Moscow mule. Anything with ginger.
What did you eat growing up in NYC?
Great question. I did not come from a diverse food culture. No one in my family really cooked. They actually asked me how I learned how to cook so well and I have no idea! We ordered in a lot and cereal was always available. Yodels were a consistent thing in my life.
We had to take a break from Chinese food because we ate it multiple times a week for like three years straight. I also ate pizza every single day of the week with a can Diet Coke. A dollar slice and a fifty cent can of soda. I sound so freakin’ old!
I'd eat at T&R on the Upper West Side by my high school everyday. Italian Village on 80th and 1st when I was on the East Side. I got locked in their bathroom as a 4 years old. It’s still my favorite pizza joint in NYC. Yes, I also get the fancy gourmet pizzas that are super delicious which when I think about I don't feel existed back then. I don't think people cared about the food in the same way that they do today. Now it’s hipsters taking babies to high end pizza experiences at places like Nicoletta. Like try these amazing pizzas! Whereas, my dollar slice was cut into squares with a roller until I was old enough to pridefully fold it in half like a real New Yorker either way allowing me to scarf it down before going about my day. There's still nothing better than pizza.
Favorite beauty product?
Hands down (or up) my favorite beauty product is nail polish! You see, on occasion I like to put my hands in my photos and there is nothing more distracting than gross looking fingers near food. Instead of taking away from my photos, I like to add a pop of color to set a mood. It can be bright colors in the summer to give that "summer fun" feel or a deep bordeaux for the fall winter months for a more sophisticated feel.
Favorite travel spot? Where do you want to go to next?
I once stayed in a hotel in Sorrento that was built into the side of a cliff where you enter on the roof which so happens to be ground level and take the elevator down into the main spaces. I stayed in a corner room. One side overlooking town and the other over the Mediterranean with views of Vesuvius. This was five years ago and in all my travels, that's the moment that sticks out the most. Waking up there every day was breathtaking.
Next, I'd love to see Greece. I studied it extensively in my undergrad Art History classes and always wanted to see it for myself. Ooh, and Thailand, for the same exact reason.
How did you start making money from your site?
Mostly through client relationships and sponsored posts. I wasn’t on Instagram when I got my first client. It was a different time. I was making no money on my site but it didn’t matter. I was working a 9 to 5 at start up and ultimately a branding agency reached out. Coffee & Champagne was a hobby I wasn’t sure I was ready to take into the business world. I kinda just wanted it for me. I feared losing that fun hobby feel. Thinking, I won’t have to do anything I don’t want to, I just took it. Any little jobs either through this company or that came in independently, I didn’t really negotiate with. It wasn’t a career path at the time.
Once things started to pick up, I stopped doing affiliate programs. I don’t think that’s the best way to do it.
WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE CLIENTS?
I work with a lot of really great ones which I consider a blessing. I love working with Fresh Direct. They worked with me when C&C was really young and I will forever be grateful to them for it. Also, they are just lovely people. On occasion, I’ll grab coffee with some of them. They’ve taken me out with them to an oyster farm and when I threw an event where I’d be cooking, they sponsored all of the ingredients including the ones for recipe testing. I think they’re wonderful and their product is great. I believe in the brand. They make life so easy and I actually used them for years before working with them. I just love them and the products they deliver. I know they go all around the world to get specific ingredients.
What is the most exciting thing you've done because of C&C?
Honestly, I am so blessed with the opportunities I am given on a daily basis. Being on the Dr. Oz show was one of those wow moments for me. Sitting in my own dressing room, going to hair and makeup, being on air with a live studio audience applauding me, it was so exciting![Definitely click on the image below to find out how to make her Oolong Tea Berry Oatmeal] But then again, I also went to the Food & Wine Festival in South Beach last year and ended up playing ping-pong on a team with Chef Jean Georges. It's really hard to choose. I'm just so excited to see what comes next!
WHAT RESTAURANT(S) COULD YOU EAT AT FOR EVERY MEAL?
There's a few. It depends on the mood. Black Barn breakfast during the week. It's not just for brunch. The level of food is great. I've been there for all three meals before. Egg Shop I could do for a low key laid back meal. Eggs are my favorite food. Eggs make every dish better. I can eat them every day.
Favorite foodie moment?
When I relaunched my website, I threw an event for 14 influencers. My friends were always asking to try my recipes so I decided to have a party where everyone could come together, they could promote it, and I could give them more food than just one dish. So I did! I worked with great sponsors. Fresh Direct sponsored the ingredients for my dishes, S'well bottles were sponsored to hold water and double as place cards once I wrote everyone’s Instagram handles on them. Splacer (like Airbnb for event space) sponsored the loft space. I cooked for two days before the event, and with the help of my husband who did more than just lend a hand, I was able to mingle. Everyone sat and ate. I expected them to post one photo each, but they did four or five even after the event was over. It made me so happy, happy to see them eat my creations and know first hand what the flavors from my site actually taste like. Everyone was stuffed. It was a great event, a wow moment for me. I was so overjoyed to bring people together.
In case you’re wondering what she served. Here ya go: French Toast Cake, crab cake sandos with lobster hollandaise, lobster mac n’ cheese, pumpkin bread for the table, and sweet potato waffles with eggs on top. One potato was purple, which turned the batter green!
What's next for C&C?
I'm constantly moving Coffee And Champagne into a space where it becomes more and more of a digital magazine. I'm always looking for people who have something exciting to say and aren't afraid to put in the elbow grease to write articles for me. While Coffee And Champagne has always been about my adventures discovering and creating amazing food, it is also about the incredibly talented people I meet along the way. Showing them off and curating their work is beyond exciting.