America’s Test Kitchen gets failing grade
What’s cooking with America’s Test Kitchen? A lot of home cooks really like this PBS cooking show as well as its offspring Cook’s Country and Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, the publication that spawned them.
But many of these same fans believe they’ve been burned by the company’s overly aggressive marketing campaign which they claim floods them with spam and solicitations and dupes them into spending money on products they don’t want.
What America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) is doing is nothing new to consumers. How many of us remember as kids joining a book or record club where you would get 12 items for JUST $1, and then month after month the club would send you more books and records of the club’s choosing, which you were obligated to pay for until you notified them in writing to stop.
I admit I’m guilty, I once joined a book club, got in over my head, paid for books I had no interest in, and then vowed never to join anything like it again. A vow I’ve kept.
Over the years, these merchandisers have gotten smarter with quieter guerilla marketing tools. Hooking consumers into spending more money than they want to and flooding them with non-stop solicitations. These marketing techniques range from annoying — those crappy subscription inserts that are stuck ad nauseum (pun intended) in magazines; to disruptive — relentless telemarking calls; to downright nasty — consumers are sent merchandise they didn’t order, can’t get hold of customer service, then receive collection notices threatening to hurt their credit ratings if they don’t pay.
What surprises people is that ATK is allegedly doing these things. Helmed by the bow-tied and fastidious Christopher Kimball, home cooks have grown to respect him. The whole point of his shows is to find the best way to make things like meatloaf and apple pie. He takes great care to do things right. Cooks trust him. They may not like him, but they trust him and his staff. His magazine, Cook’s Illustrated, boasts that it accepts no commercial advertising. He is (kind of) a poster boy for ethics and high standards.
At the end of each of his PBS shows there is an invitation by the announcer that you can find the recipes from the show online at the ATK’s website. You’ll find them. But you’ll pay for them.
You pay FOR everything. To view the online recipes, there is a fee. In addition, they have another “exclusive” online section with more recipes, and there’s another fee for that. Once on their website, you are offered various free trials for products or services… there’s always a catch. A free this or that comes with the understanding you will continue to get the item or service on a continual basis, at a cost. When your one-year online subscription is done, ATK will automatically renew it and charge your credit card unless you’ve headed them off at the pass.
And once people go for the bait, and free trial, they will never be lonely again. Consumers complain they are getting bombarded with emails and telemarketing phone calls trying to sell them cookbooks and other things.
Here are some comments about ATK from a thread on the Chowhound chat board, written by home cooks, started on Dec. 22, 2011, and still running to date. 189 comments so far:
What burns my biscuits is when they are dishing up a recipe on the show and they say if you want the salsa, compote, whatever that is being served with the dish you can find it for free on our website. Bull hockey!!!! When you click on the name of the item it says it is only available to those who are subscribers.
We get the magazine and pay more for the website, yet damn near every time I go on there and find a recipe I want to make, it’s in “exclusive” section (or whatever it’s called) and I’d have to pay even more to get it! WTF?!!?
What really gets me is when they say, on their TV program, that the recipes are available online. So here’s an example; They did a cupcake show a while back. I went online, yes I’m registered, and got the cupcake recipe but, when I looked for the frosting recipe, it was under the exclusive section. What’s that about?? Needless to say, I don’t watch them anymore, I’m done with ATK.
I had a subscription to Cooks Illustrated, but I got so fed up with their constant hounding to purchase more and more stuff that I just ended it. It kills me. I love my ATK cookbook because it really is a great source of information. I do like the ATK shows as well, I find them concise and no-nonsense. However, Kimball has a set of ’em, is this guy for real??? He tries to come across as an “Aw shucks, Gee Whiz” kind of guy and he’s the food equivalent of an ambulance chaser attorney. Arrrrrrgh…
What I don’t get is how the ATK marketing department hasn’t seen/realized that their tactics cause so much ire and responded accordingly to scale it back. All I can figure is that this business model must result in adequate profitability that they can afford to lose the revenue of the disgruntled.
I received a very misleading sales call today promising me a “free gift” for all my past purchases — which slowing morphed into a misleading way to sell me a new book which would come with the free gift (no book purchase – no free gift). When I complained… about how misleading the call was, he hung up abruptly. When I complained to the company’s customer service department, I didn’t even receive an apology — only a terse replay that they had removed me from their data base, as I’d requested. These people are REALLY sleazy — all they want is our money!
Despite… replying to a customer service inquiry and sending an additional email requesting to be removed from all their lists, I still get deluged with their emails selling books, touting their cooking school, and promoting a new blog of some kind. These people are RELENTLESS!!!
I’ve unsubscribed countless times to no avail. Just like any other spammer they use that information to confirm that it’s a real address – so they can send you more junk mail. This is over the course of seven (eight? ten?) years. My spam folder is filled with Ancestry.com, ATK and Cialis crap.
In defense of America’s Test Kitchen, in 2011, “Kattyeyes” said she was having no problems with them:
So far so good for me. I received an ATK e-mail today, “Notes from the Test Kitchen–Recipes and Kitchen Tips That Work.” This is actually what I thought I was signing up for…
UNTIL March 5, 2014, then even Kattyeyes started growling:
Update 2014: My mom mentions around Christmastime, she has signed me up for a magazine subscription… Nothing ever came. Until…the phone rings one day. Would I like some special compendium of whatever recipes? No, thank you. Hey, while I have you on the phone (wondering how they got my number), I think my mom may have signed me up for something?
No magazines ever arrive in my mailbox, but guess what does. A BILL! Yes, a PAST DUE BILL for my “free gift” whatever–and then a second and third notice for this wonderful “gift.” Thank you, Cook’s. I enjoy your shows. You have some great recipes. But why you have to resort to such shady marketing practices I CANNOT COMPREHEND. And now, much as I love your content, you have really left a bitter taste in my mouth. Merry Christmas indeed.
ETA: P.S. Your “sign up to see the free recipes” routine has really gotten old. Be like Bon Appetit or any other magazine and JUST POST THE CONTENT, FFS!
There are also a number of complaints to the Better Business Bureau about Boston Common Press, the “mothership” and publisher of Cook’s Illustrated. Boston Common Press is not accredited with the BBB, nor do they need to be, it is voluntary. These are the requirements for BBB accreditation, which apparently Boston Common Press has no interest in:
To be accredited by BBB, a business must apply for accreditation and BBB must determine that the business meets BBB accreditation standards, which include a commitment to make a good faith effort to resolve any consumer complaints. BBB Accredited Businesses must pay a fee for accreditation review/monitoring and for support of BBB services to the public.
Wonder why they aren’t interested in Better Business Bureau accreditation?
Consumers complained to the BBB about confusion over receiving books in the mail and being charged for them when they thought they were getting a free sample, as well as having membership renewals to America’s Test Kitchen charged to their credit cards without authorization.
A common complaint was consumers could not resolve these issues directly with customer service representatives.
BBB complaint example:
Complaint: I subscribed to Americas Test Kitchen and Cooks Country websites to have access to recipes. On 11/13/2013 I received and email saying that the annual membership fee will be charged to my credit card on file and if I need to cancel or change I can do so at the website. When I visited their website, there is no option to cancel! There is only option to add a credit card. I want to cancel my Cooks Country membership before they charge me and I can’t do it on the website. So I called customer service at ************** and a recording answered saying that due to their website updates they can’t answer my call and that’s it. Hanging up afterwards with no option to talk to anyone. Now I’m stuck with a membership I don’t want, I want to cancel, with no option to cancel and they have 2 of my credit cards!!! I need help.
Desired Settlement: I want to cancel both of my memberships (America’s Test Kitchen and Cooks Country) and I want them to delete my credit card information.
Business Response: We apologize for any confusion regarding your online memberships and processing a cancellation. Effective today, the memberships for both Americastestkitchen.com and Cookscoutry.com have been cancelled.The accounts have also been refunded in full for $29.95 for each. Please let us know if you have any additional questions.
Consumer Response: I have reviewed the response submitted by the business and have determined that the response does satisfy my issues and/or concerns in reference to complaint. I understand that by choosing to accept the business response that my complaint will be closed as resolved.
BBB’s Final Determination: Consumer accepted resolution offered by the business.
When complaints are made to the Better Business Bureau, Boston Common Press does respond and resolves them (although not always to the customer’s satisfaction), earning them an A+ rating from BBB.
So that’s the deal, caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, and contact the Better Business Bureau if you have problems.
When it comes to America’s Test Kitchen, there is no free lunch. Or dinner. Or dessert. If you like the show, watch it for free on TV. If you want their cookbooks and recipes go to abebooks where you’ll find them amazingly cheap with no strings attached.