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4 Lessons on Building an Empire from the Pioneer Woman

by | Mar 11, 2020

Although Locavores is primarily a fast casual restaurant, we will occasionally take on more upscale caterings.  Recently, a client requested pork tenderloin. 

Listen, let’s be candid here.  I’m not a domestic diva.  I cook to feed people.  I know you’re asking why I ever decided to open a restaurant if I’m not passionate about cooking.  That is another story for another time.  But, I’m just not.  I’ve never gotten into trying all kinds of new things.  My family and I like what we like and that is what I make.  Simple, healthy and tasty is my forte’.

However, on occasions like this when I am asked to bring it up a level, I will immediately call my mother in law, Jody, to rescue me.  At this point, almost all of the recipes in my rotation are Jody’s.  She has a real knack for making complex recipes simple – or maybe she made them simple because she knew who she was giving them to!

Jody pictured here with Cole after a football game this fall

Jody pictured here with Cole after a football game this fall

Usually, we have these recipes discussions over the phone.  This time though, I was sitting at her kitchen table discussing the need for a good pork tenderloin recipe. 

“Oh yes” she says, “let me find it for you”. 

One by one she starts bringing out recipe books.

Oh, the Pioneer Woman, I think.  Yes, I recalled buying some brightly colored napkins this summer in a pinch from Wal-Mart that were from her.

Note all the sticky note tabs!

Note all the sticky note tabs!

Then, something odd began to happen.  Before I knew it, there were 3 massive volumes of recipe books from The Pioneer Woman and several magazines.  She began flipping through them, frustrated not to be able to find the recipe she was looking for.

This wasn’t even all of them!

This wasn’t even all of them!

I was distracted.  Not only were there at least 8 volumes of Pioneer Woman material here, she had sticky tabs all over the place.  I had just stumbled on to a silent truth about my MIL.  She is the ultimate fan of The Pioneer Woman , Ree Drummond!

However, the Pioneer Woman has nothing on my MIL.This is one of the two pies she had baked for us!

However, the Pioneer Woman has nothing on my MIL.This is one of the two pies she had baked for us!

As I sat there with all these volumes of The Pioneer Woman in front of me, I became fascinated.  No, not by the recipes. But by the brand of The Pioneer Woman.  I had vaguely become familiar with Ree Drummond’s success.  I had noted the dishes in Wal-mart.  I was attracted to the bright colors and the unique styles.  There was something fresh and unique about her style.  I liked it.  I had viewed a video of the kind woman preparing some recipe at some point or other.

However, it wasn’t until this moment sitting at my MIL’s kitchen table, did the awareness hit me of the massive brand this woman had created.  I absolutely love studying how women build their empires.  I made a mental note to look her up. 

The general backstory on Ann Marie “Ree” Drummond is that she was born and raised in Bartsville, Oklahoma.  She attended college in Los Angles with a degree in gerontology.  She was on her way to attend law school, when she met and married her husband, Ladd Drummond.  They began building a life together on a massive 400,000 acre cattle ranch near Pawhuska, Oklahoma.  They would go on to have four children, who Ree homeschooled.

In 2006, Drummond decided to try her hand at blogging.  She began writing about life on the ranch, homeschooling her children and sharing recipes.  Her step-by-step guides to cooking recipes and food photography were a hit with readers.  Within the first year, she won honors at the weblog awards.

By 2009, her blog received 13 million views per month and by 2011 23.3 million!  Whoa!  From children’s books, to numerous recipe books, to her own show on the Food Network, Ree Drummond has been a woman on fire.   By 2015, her dish collections were launched at Wal-Mart.  Bam!  Now that is impressive. 

What I wanted to know though, is how did she do it?  What was her process and what elements made her so successful?

1.       Be So Good They Come Looking For You

When Drummond began her blog in 2006, it grew entirely organically.  One friend shared it with another friend, who shared it with her sister and so on.  I am unsure if Drummond could have ever anticipated how her lifestyle would appeal to so many people.  You would be surprised to know that she didn’t start out sharing recipes.  As an afterthought one day she shared a steak recipe and it was a big hit with followers.  She listened to what her followers liked and did more of that.

She worked hard to perfect what she was doing.  She learned food photography (which is so very difficult by the way) so that she could share beautiful photos with a lot of detail.  Whatever she did, she worked to do well.  From there she allowed the results to flow naturally.

I have to admit, as a serious goal-getter, I initially had some mixed feelings on this.  Setting targets and breaking them down to daily doable tasks is my thing.  I accomplished many awesome things in my life because of this way of working. The idea to just let the results naturally flow is almost sacrilegious! 

What I learned from Drummond’s process is that she focused solely on providing value to people from the beginning.  She spent her time on perfecting her work and providing content that people loved.  It’s a way different business model than we are taught to employ. Normally, the plan on how to monetize the business comes first. 

2.       You Are Your Best Asset

Although she spent time briefly in college in Los Angeles, Drummond was born and raised in Oklahoma.  By the time she started her blog, she was married to a rancher and was homeschooling four children.  Her blog, which was initially called Confessions of a Pioneer Woman, was about her life on the ranch caring for her family.

As one who has delved into the arena of sharing my life through blogging, I have to wonder if she ever had doubts about whether people would find her writing and life interesting enough.  Surely at some point she had to think, “how many will truly be interested in this”?  If she did have these doubts, she didn’t allow them to force her to be or do things that was not true to HER.  She never attempted to be the L.A. or New York jet setter.  She attempted to be the mom and wife living on a ranch, which was exactly who she was.

3.       It’s Okay to be Ambitious

It would be a mistake to assume that Drummond is the stereotypically conservative mom and wife whose life revolves solely around her family.  From what I could count, she has written over 15 books (8 of them children’s books), stars on a food network show, has her own line of dishes at Wal-Mart, and owns a restaurant and a hotel. 

Listen, I have a blog, created a planner, and own a restaurant.  This in itself is full-time work.  I am in awe of what she has accomplished.  From my own experience, I can deduce a few things.  First, she’s a smart cookie.  She is very aware of her brand and how to work it full-circle.

Second, she must be a quick decision maker.  It took her four years from first blog post to land a cook off challenge with Bobby Flay on the Food Network.  Being in business for yourself requires constant decision making.   There would not have been time for her to get stuck in analysis paralysis.  She had to have made decisions and made them quickly.

Finally, she is a risk taker.  Although Martha Stewart and Paula Dean had been around for some time, they were nothing like Ree Drummond.  She didn’t allow this to stop her.  She was willing to take the risk that her life and point of view were valuable enough to put out there.  That risk paid off. 

4.        Don’t Be Afraid of Serving a Niche

I believe that at the Pioneer Headquarters there is a document somewhere that defines Drummond’s target market.  I am pretty certain that they can add my MIL’s photo to that document.  My MIL loves serving her family.  In fact, her love language is acts of service.  The Pioneer Woman brand embodies the woman who finds great joy in living a simple life, serving others through food and home.  Even those of us women aspiring to do great things outside of our homes, love the idea of creating this kind of cozy atmosphere when we can. 

 However, this brand would not appeal to every woman or every lifestyle.  In fact, in doing some research on Drummond, I came across many articles blasting her as taking the women’s movement back a few decades.  Whatever. Not a single woman was forced to locate her blog, download her recipes or read her content.  She continues to serve that niche and does it proudly. 

We are often afraid of defining our audience because we are afraid of losing sales.  The Pioneer Woman brand is a strong example of going all in on one audience.  It is clearly a powerful move.

In today’s world, it’s easy to become jaded. It’s so important to fill our minds with what is possible. We must learn from those who have paved the way. Ree Drummond’s story of building an authentic brand has inspired me and reminded me why I began this process in the first place.


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