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America’s Test Kitchen gets failing grade


While Cook's Illustrated Magazine touts itself as not having advertisements, its TV show America's Test Kitchen has serious commercial underwriters.

While Cook’s Illustrated Magazine touts itself as not having advertisements, its TV show America’s Test Kitchen has serious commercial underwriters.

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.

Free IssueWhat 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.

Free-Trial-CIWhat 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.

Bon Appetit.

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32 thoughts on “America’s Test Kitchen gets failing grade

  1. I love it! I’d like the record to show it takes a bit to get this kat to growl. 😉

  2. Katty, just wondering, are you still getting any kind of solicitations from America’s Test Kitchen?

  3. I recently ordered and paid for ATK’s 2014 complete cookbook. I also received, unordered, their 2015 Cookbook along with an invoice.

    Some may not be aware that this action has been a violation of FEDERAL law since 1970; see https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/investigations/mailfraud/fraudschemes/othertypes/unsolicitedfraud.aspx

    It is my legal right to consider the unsolicited cookbook as a gift. I am exercising that right.

    Rather than complaining to the BBB, I have drafted a letter which will be sent to ATK in place of payment, with a copy to my local postmaster. If everyone who has gotten unsolicited merchandise from ATK’s marketing firm does this, the USPS might take action. (They may do so anyway, I’ve had no experience in these matters.)

    Worth noting: the firm that handles sales may simply be a subcontractor; ATK may not be aware of how widespread the practice is. Or perhaps they are… I’ll follow up with any results.

    • Thanks for your comment Terry. AND GOOD FOR YOU! One of the things ATK’s fulfillment company was telling unhappily surprised customers is that hidden away in the fine print was permission granted to receive more merchandise. In any event, America’s Test Kitchen merchandising is overly aggressive, misleading and unconscionable. I will never subscribe to ATK online or buy any products from them. It’s too bad when something good turns out to be bad. Shame on you, Chris Kimball, for your unbridled greed. That’s where the buck stops.

    • Terry, can you open the packages though? I think that you cannot open the package if it’s unsolicted. You can however, refuse it at the door and return to sender unopened. If I recall that process correclty? I suppose if they package both books together and you open them together, does that change anything?

  4. Caro Bell on said:

    I too ordered the ATK tv series 2014 cookbook (LOVE IT) and then received the 2015 “companion” cookbook. This time I read the fine print on the invoice and it said I could manage my account at americastestkitchen.com/customerservice. I clicked on the Books category and there was an option to manage my account without actually registering – just needed my account number (obtained from the invoice) and my zip code. From there I could print out a prepaid UPS return label and ship the book back. So, I did that. I could also see what was to ship next in my “subscription,” (which was suspended – probably due to me owing for the book they had shipped but I hadn’t paid for) with an option to cancel that. So I did.

    The next thing I did was look at my order history, and lo and behold, about a week after my original purchase, I “ordered” something called the CPP to CKI plan 017. That was probably where I got enrolled in the “cookbook preview series.” I also checked the credit card tab under “My Orders” and was glad to see they didn’t have my credit card listed there.

    So, I didn’t go through the BBB or anything like that, but I was able to stop receiving anything else from being sent.

    I love America’s Test Kitchen -the show. I didn’t love feeling like I had been decieved, nor the hassle of taking the steps to return the book, and cancel the subscription.

  5. Here’s a bit of an update: From the ATK Free Registration—the fine print is important,but livable. I unchecked all the boxes to their 3d party sponsors as well. they’ve provided the option to opt out, otherwise, you’ll get email from their 3d party sponsors.

    You can get current season and last season recipes for free…but the rest is a $34.95 / year charge.

    ________________________________________

    FROM THEIR FREE MEMBERSHIP SIGN UP.

    ” Please Note: It is our policy to post only the recipes, equipment tests, and tastings from the current season and last year’s season for FREE. Recipes, testing and tasting results from the previous seasons are only available to standard members of AmericasTestKitchen.com.

    Registering for AmericasTestKitchen.com does not give you access to “Members Only” content on any of our standard memberships including CooksCountry.com, CooksIllustrated.com, and AmericasTestKitchen.com. Your cookies need to be activated for this site to work properly. Click here for information on how to activate your cookies.

    * Your email address will not be shared with any third parties that are not sponsors of the show.”

    ________________________________________________

    I think that ATK might have been listening to complaints, but I also noticed that if you make one mis-click, you may end up with unwanted items and such.

    As to cookbooks and magazine subscriptions, I let Amazon handle all that. Things are cheaper at Amazon for either if you’re looking for new.

    I’ve read the ChowHound comments and what I don’t understand is that people really appreciate the content and the WHY—very persnickety crew of intellectually curious people–a good thing.

    I think that with careful reading and selection, one could avoid the hassle of ATK. The only drawback being the emails that are a necessary evil with anything these days. For things like ATK, I have an account that’s separate from my primary email and I can go in and swipe out all the junk daily and be done with it.

    In the end, ATK is a business and of course they want to make a good profit margin. Their marketing tactics are legal, if not ethically sound. Ethics tends to come after all the complaints it seems—

    Linda

  6. I, too, am feeling burned by ATK. I have been trying for months to cancel an online cooking school subscription as well as my online subscription to ATK. I cannot contact them within their customer service hours due to where I live, and they have no email for customer service. I’ve tried using their automated phone system, but my account number is not shown online when I login. It is ridiculous that I cannot cancel my subscription easily with an email or automatically online. This alone should not be an allowed practice for businesses in 2016. I realize they have a classic style of doing business, but if you can’t keep up with customer support as your customers need, then you’re doing your customers a hug disservice. I’ve been charged so many additional months for their service that I don’t even want anymore all because I can’t get ahold of them to cancel. Just ridiculous!

  7. We had a subscription with automatic renewal for the past few years to Cook’s Country and just a couple of days ago I saw the latest issue on the newstand..one we never received. Then we get a late notice for renewal, but we never received the first one to begin with. We always paid on time before-many years-loyal customers. Guess it’s up to US to keep track, huh? They lost our business……

  8. Diane Shopiro on said:

    CANCEL MY FREE ATK MEMBERSHIP

  9. Mitra on said:

    How can anyone be bullied into getting something they do not want? You have the option to cancel any time. I joined the online cooking class and cancelled it when I found myself lacking time. I had no issues whatsoever to cancel. All I did was send an email to cancel and I never got charged again. Every business tries to maximize their revenue and all ATK is doing is just that. If emails are getting too much, one has the option to unsubscribe.

    • People have also complained about getting merchandise they didn’t order and then were billed for it. The Better Business Bureau has a lot of complaints on file.

    • Mitra, this is many months later, but where did you send a cancellation email too? I’ve been unable to find a customer service email address on the Cook’s Illustrated website, and it’s infuriating. All I can find is a 1-800 number that’s work hours, Monday to Friday only, which is very inconvenient for me.

      • Diana Breithaupt on said:

        I had to call them after being charged $17.50 for my FREE MEMBERSHIP. This is wrong and very disappointing. I will not have anything to do with them from now on as this is so wrong. How did they get my card number????? Yikes…

      • Answering my own question: eventually I found an email address on their website: support@americastestkitchen.com

        If I recall correctly, the email address is a link, rather than directly stated anywhere; I think it was at the bottom of a page somewhere. It wasn’t as easy to find as it should be.

        In America’s Test Kitchen’s defense: once I sent them email, the service was very prompt and friendly, and they cancelled the subscription as I requested. My (unwanted) renewal payment had already been processed, and it was quickly refunded. I was impressed.

        They definitely need to improve the service and help options on their website, but once I found a way to contact them by email, the service was very good.

      • I’m trying to cancel after finding the snickerdoodle recipe was moved to some other site they want me to pay for. Of course, the “cancel my subscription” doesn’t work, and I found the email address here instead of on the site. Also, I couldn’t delete my credit information from their site. Hopefully they respond to me.

      • My goodness, this is NO way to run a business! America’s test Kitchen, knock it off!

  10. I received an e-mail saying my membership would be automatically renewed on 9/6/2016. I call on 9/1/2016 to cancel my membership. Surprise! They drafted my account on 9/6/2016, which resulted in an overdrawn account. Needless to say, I’m very upset.

  11. C’mon, you don’t like a guy because he wears a bowtie? You are upset because you have to have a membership? What is this, NPR, where everything is suppose to be free? If you have a problem with your credit card purchases, demand a refund from your bank and request a new credit card with a new credit card number, done! As for me, I like Cooking Illustrated a lot. Especially, Christopher Kimball’s editorials.

    • Dan Moore on said:

      Doesn’t matter now – Kimball has flown from this supersales stinker. The new ATK is a trainwreck. My son hit the nail on the head – it has the look and feel of a bad infomercial. Julia & Bridget seem forced, and lack direction. Their words are wooden & rehearsed (badly). Their interactions seem juvenile. It detracts from the things they’re trying to show us.

      Never knew just how important Kimball was to the flow, but it’s pretty obvious now. Time to cut ties with ATK.

      • I hadn’t watched the show in eons, but tuned in when I heard the hubbub about Julia and Bridget. I agree, they aren’t cutting it as co-hosts. So what will happen now with this huge (and somewhat sleazy) conglomerate that Chris K built?

  12. I am trying to get off of you email list. I have called and called. REMOVE ME FROM THE EMAIL LIST
    mreid1951@bellsouth.net
    asap

  13. when you sign up for the one free month and do not cancel, you might not be aware your account is bing charged monthly, an 80 dollar mistake I just made…

  14. Jeff L on said:

    Excellent post Patricia – I had a very similar experience. I concur with your points regarding Christopher Kimball being the “poster boy” for ATK. I thought – this is a company/site I can trust. I signed up and started to surf for recipes. It seemed most of the time the recipes I wanted to use were only available for an additional fee. The basic membership was nearly worthless and this did not imbue me with trust to spend further. Sadly, I would say ATK has put themselves in the same category as those record, tape, book clubs of days gone by. Great writing

    Jeff

  15. Vincent Necastro on said:

    ATK. Is a great program to watch,so much information but I don’t have to say that if you watched Americas Test Kitchen.I agree with the double talk for you to buy items recipe s,etc, but since Chris Kimble is gone or whatever happened I don’t watch it any longer. I hope he comes back to ATK,who knows he may just show up one day?
    Vin

  16. I have had a relationship with ATK for over 20 years. Had membership on line a couple of times. Canceled each time when I wan’t using it so much . No problems cancelling. Sure, I got the occasional “book on my door step” but I just sent it back. No problem. No charge. Yep They market a lot. Now that we all have the fabulous internet tell who doesn’t ? Anyone here get cookies dumped in their computer from oddwad sites they briefly visit? Amazon is The Perfect Retailer? I get this can be annoying but I guess I don’t find them more problematic than any other of my internet retail / membership experiences.

    Sorry to see so many frustrated by their experience

    BTW I have no relationship and do not know a soul at ATK. I have received no free promotional materials. I’m not a paid shill. I’m just willing to put up with marketing BS fro their product.

    • What you say is true. Every business has customers who report good experiences and bad. It just seems like ATK has had much more bad over the years. Let’s hope things have improved. As always, caveat emptor!

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