This is not only proof that I am not a “one off” fluke. This is a story of inspiration, strength, hope and a love story, which empowered the phenomenal success of Jen from Carlsbad Cravings. If this does not move you to tears, I do not know what will.
“I really don’t know how long I am going to be around, so I do this because I genuinely love it and want to do as much as I can while I am here…..”
When I read that, I burst into tears. When I tell my friends about Jen, I burst into tears, but then I smile as I talk animatedly about her, her amazing food and zest for life (and ridiculously cute 4 legged daughter Kiwi who saved her life).
I first stumbled across Jen from Carlsbad Cravings on Pinterest, because her amazing food is everywhere. I’d be surprised if you didn’t know of her already.
Then gradually, we started to get to know each other. As cyber-friends do. And I really got to know her through her blog, Carlsbad Cravings.
Blogs are personal. But Jen’s is more personal than most.
Because Jen is a little different to those of us who have been lucky to be born with just minor allergies.
Jen was born with Cystic Fibrosis (and diabetes) which is a life threatening genetic disorder for which there is currently no cure. She is one of less than 3% of people who have been fortunate enough to receive and survive a lung and kidney transplant (read more about her story here).
After receiving her kidney transplant in 2013, she decided to use her newfound energy to share her love of cooking with the rest of the world, and thus Carlsbad Cravings was born.
And the rest of the world sees her amazing food! Jen has grown her blog to over 1 million monthly views in 12 months and currently has over 1.3 million monthly views!
I cannot tell you how privileged I am that Jen is here to talk to us today about not only her blog and the incredible success she has achieved, but also about her life.
“…in 30 years, you aren’t really going to care about your page views, you are going to care about your loved ones and the time you did or didn’t spend with them. So have fun, do it because you love it, and don’t take yourself or blogging too seriously..” Jen, Carlsbad Cravings
Nagi: I don’t know where to start an interview like this. You’ve affected me so profoundly on so many levels and I feel so privileged that you are willing to talk to me. Let me start with this, because I did not know much about Cystic Fibrosis (“CF”) until I met you. Tell our readers what CF is and how it affected you growing up.
Jen: Oh, Nagi, you are the sweetest! Thank you, I am so honored for this opportunity! Cystic fibrosis is the number one genetic killer of young adults in the United States. In simple terms, individuals with CF have a defective gene which mainly affects the lungs and pancreas. The extra thick mucus clogs the airways and traps bacteria causing constant infections which eventually decrease lung capacity to the point of respiratory failure.
In my younger years, I felt mainly unaffected aside from countless pills, and hours every morning and every night of aerosols and airway clearance etc. to try and preserve healthy lungs with – that was just normal to me. As I got older, and friends I knew with the disease died, I very matter-of-factly concluded that I would never get married or have a family. I assumed I would die in my thirties but I also lived in hope that a cure would be found.
I was relatively healthy (few hospitalizations) while my brother, Justin, 4 years my senior, was always sick – constant hospitalizations, coughing, etc. I watched him die at age 19 in our home due to suffocation despite breathing oxygen. Justin was a pillar of strength, courage, optimism and humor. He is dearly missed but I am so grateful I will see him again.
A year after my brother’s death, I found my health in the same downward spiral. At age 16, I was deathly ill (constant high fevers, bed ridden, on oxygen 24/7, constant throwing up, etc.) and in desperate need of a lung transplant. I was too sick for a cadaveric lung transplant (transplant from a brain dead individual), so the new and risky living lobar transplant was my only hope. I had weeks to months to live.
“I am forever in debt, forever grateful, forever humbled and forever in awe of my two lung donors, family and medical staff who have made my very life possible.”
In a living lobar lung transplant, all 5 lobes (Everyone has five lobes – three on the right side and 2 on the side of a heart) are completely removed from the patient and replaced with the bottom lobe from two donors so the recipient has 2 lobes instead of 5. When all of my family members were disqualified, 2 family friends from church stepped forward and offered me lobes of their lungs.
When my lungs were taken out, I had just a quarter size left of good, healthy pink lung tissue, the rest was black and scarred from so many infections.
There were several bumps and miracles along the road of recovery, but the surgery was successful. I am forever in debt, forever grateful, forever humbled and forever in awe of my two lung donors, family and medical staff who have made my very life possible.
Nagi: Reading about the logic your family applied as to who should give you your “first” kidney transplant in this post was both funny and heartbreakingly beautiful to read as they argued the “next available” kidney. Tell me more about this time in your life, and how you felt.
Jen: I can’t believe my kidney transplant was just over two years ago! I was listed for a cadaveric kidney transplant while we waited for test results to see if my mom or sister would be a match for a living donor transplant. At this point, I felt pretty crummy physically but I was in great spirits.
I was severely anemic so I had little energy, my legs and feet were full of fluid so I could only wear skirts and one pair of shoes, my diet was very restricted and on and on. Still, the situation wasn’t life or death like it was with my lung transplant – worse case scenario I would be on dialysis for years and feel crummy until a match was found.
Still, I was filled with an overwhelming peace that everything would work out. I still didn’t know how, or by “who” – but I knew it would. Until the test results came back, it was just a waiting game, a hopeful waiting game.
Nagi: You wrote a book, “My Heroes Ask Wallflowers to Dance” about your life. Tell me about writing it – it was so emotional, I can’t imagine the strength it took! (Here’s a post where Jen shares her experience about writing the book).
Jen: I never planned on writing a book but I really wanted to honor all of the heroes in my life from my brother Justin, to the rest of my family, lung donors, doctors, community, etc who have metaphorically “asked me to dance” and carried me onto the dance floor of life when I didn’t have the strength.
Writing my book was an emotional, cathartic, heartwarming, rewarding experience. I would be typing away as tears poured down my cheeks. Time and again, Patrick would look at me and say, “Are you okay?!” And I would respond, “I’m good, I’m good,” and keep typing and crying. It was emotional to read my dad’s journals, to relive the pain and loss, awe-inspiring to reflect on all the service and sacrifice on my behalf, and overwhelming to reflect on all the Lord’s tender mercies and miracles in my life.
Nagi: Do you have some resources and organisations you could share with us for those of us who want to learn more and support the cause? Are there organisations that you are involved in?
Jen: The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is an amazing organization that has raised millions of dollars for cystic fibrosis research. I have spoken at several of their fundraisers and attend their Great Strides Walk every year. They have many drugs in the pipeline that are extremely promising to treat cystic fibrosis and hopefully to completely cure it in the near future.
Nagi: How are you now?
Jen: I feel great! I feel blessed every single day to be alive, especially with less than 1/3 of lung transplant patients living past 10 years and I am celebrating 16 years next month! After my lung transplant, my doctor told me that “A lung transplant doesn’t cure your disease, it gives you a different disease.” I have come to understand what she meant with over a dozen pneumonias, four lung rejection episodes, etc. The immune-suppressants I take so my body doesn’t detect and reject my donated lungs or kidney make it hard for my body to fight something as simple as a cold so being able to work from home truly is an answer to prayer!
Nagi: Tell me more about your husband Patrick. I read this post. How did you meet, who asked who out first ;-), where did you get married?
Jen: Patrick is sweet, kind, courageous, creative and so much FUN! I had never know if I was going to get married but I had always known I wasn’t going to settle for anything less than my soul mate. Enter Patrick.
We met on the dusty streets of Puerto Nuevo, Mexico where we were vacationing separately with friends and just happened to be on the same street at exactly the same time in a foreign country. I helped Patrick move from about an hour away to Carlsbad (north San Diego) which was technically our first date because he bought me In ‘N Out. As I whipped out my insulin with my burger and fries, I found him so easy to talk to about everything. Our second date was a jail break from the hospital in between my IV doses to a Japanese restaurant. I made sure I changed out of my gown first. We were married less than four months later in the San Diego Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Temple on May 26, 2006. It has been the best 10 years of my life!
Nagi: This is a hard question I’m sure, but tell me what your most wonderful memory of Patrick is.
Jen: I have so many wonderful memories but one that encompasses so much emotion is immediately after my kidney transplant. We didn’t know if the surgery would be a success – if I would wake up with a functioning kidney or be on dialysis. When I woke up, not only did the kidney transplant work, but I felt amazing! We were both giddy, laughing and talking and planning all the fun things we were going to do. He was smiling ear to ear and I could see the weight of the world off his shoulders and replaced with pure joy.
Nagi: (cheeky) Who wears the pants in your relationship?
Jen: We each wear a leg!
Nagi: Booooring…..so politically correct! 😉
“As I thought about sharing recipes, I decided I also wanted to share more of the blessings and miracles that continue to be part of my life as well – and being both a lung and kidney transplant recipient (due to cystic fibrosis) – there are many!”
Nagi: What made you start your blog?
Jen: I have always loved to cook! Before my blog, I would create my own recipes, find a photo of a similar looking recipe online and add it to my visual recipe index of my HUGE recipe binder. Such a foodie nerd. Even when I was severely anemic before my kidney transplant and my feet were so swollen and felt like they were going to explode after a long day at the office, I always had energy to cook. In fact, the thought of creating in the kitchen re-energized and got me through the day.
After my kidney transplant when I was working from home, I was walking on the beach with my sister-in-law and she said, “You should start a food blog, I’d read it!” I had never wanted to start a food blog because then I would actually have to measure things but the thought of my sister-in-law and 30 people finding joy in my food excited me. The fact that it has turned into what it has is such an incredible, humbling blessing. I get to do what I love, work from home and stay healthy and eat lots of food.
After the outpouring of love from my book, I also wanted a place to share more of the blessings and miracles that continue to make my life possible. In a way, my blog is my legacy, my journal and my testimony all in one place.
“… honestly, cooking has gotten me though some tough times”
Nagi: I’ve noticed that your family features in your recipes posts. Can you tell us more about the food you share on your blog?
Jen: I share anything and everything I love – whether its inspired by an old family recipe or a family member’s favorite ingredient – food and family simply go together! I share recipes with big, bold flavors – often Mexican and Asian – and often a creative twist on a classic – the creative part is my favorite! I want every single recipe to be the very best it can be so if an extra spice or ingredient will do the trick, I am going to add it!
Nagi: You’ve achieved growth on your blog beyond what most people ever dream. I have my theories. Care to share your thoughts?
Jen: I think it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of luck and a lot of bright images.
I only post recipes I absolutely love so hopefully that keeps people coming back and knowing that Carlsbad Cravings always has delicious recipes.
I also try and create recipes that are accessible yet still creative and unique. I name my recipes first – and if it sounds good, then I will make it for the blog – if it sounds too out there – I will make it for me. I have worked hard at creating beautiful images because I want people to eat my food!
I had never held a nice camera before my blog and am totally embarrassed of my first images, but that is a good thing because it means there has been improvement!
I think quality photography is extremely important to get noticed, featured and invited to contribute to other blogs. I lucked out and was asked to be a contributor for some big blogs such as RecipeGirl, Realhousemoms, The Recipe Critic and Chef in Training which really helped me grow. I also got noticed early on by BuzzFeed and they began regularly featuring my recipes – they seem to really like creative angles on food.
While content is key, we have all heard that promotion is queen. I believe I grew so quickly because I had a few recipes that went crazy on Pinterest due to my bright images and collage pins back before collages were everywhere. Aside from scheduling tools (yay BoardBooster!) to promote my content, I am in many Pinterest Share Groups and FaceBook Share Groups which is very important for cross-promotion – and making blogging friends!
Nagi: Until you hit that “tipping point”, which for me was 1 million and it sounds like it was around that for you too, when you felt you could take your foot off the accelerator, how much time did you spend creating content and promoting each week?
Jen: I would say it was about 50/50 but it felt like I was promoting even more because I was manually pinning for the first year – I know, crazy! I didn’t like any of the scheduling tools out there until BB, so I had a strategic spreadsheet with all my pins and boards. I also participated in many FB share threads for pinterest, yummly, SU, comments, etc. Now BB and VA do most of my promoting which is mainly pinterest and FB share groups.
Nagi: I love that! We did the same, spending so much time promoting our work! You’re a text book case study for my 50/50 Rule Post (i.e. for every hour you spend creating content, spend 1 hour promoting it).
What are your top 5 recipes? Where did they “take off” and why do you think they were so popular?
- Almost No Bake Mini Chocolate Peanut Butter Pies – This recipe doesn’t have as many pins as some of my others but since I posted it in July 2015, it is continually is in my top 5 and going strong. I think it has done so well because everyone loves chocolate, peanut butter, pies and mini everything! It has done well on FB because the picture is FB friendly – up close and personal – and it has done well on pinterest because I have a non-expandable process shot pin. It is also part of a No Bake Desserts Roundup I participated in with some other bloggers so its shared constantly.
- Chili Lime Chicken Tacos with Grilled Pineapple Salsa – I am actually really surprised this recipe has done THIS well and I almost didn’t post them because I wasn’t happy with the pictures! I think they do well on pinterest because they are colorful and an approachable, fresh new take on everyones favorite – tacos! They have been shared by various publications such as msn.com, BuzzFeed, etc.
- 3 “Secret Ingredient” Better Thank Takeout Beef and Broccoli
– I posted this recipe my third week of blogging! It really took off on pinterest because of the up close photo and I did a collage pin before everyone was doing them. This pin has now been around a while so people like to comment on the pin and say that they love the recipe – and that always helps! Also, everyone wants to know the “secret ingredient”
- Southwest Pepper Jack Salad with Creamy Avocado Salsa Dressing – I am pretty sure this is my most pinned recipe. It is bright, a pouring shot (although not the best), and a twist on a beloved classic. It was shared by Real Housemoms and got a lot of traffic from that, but it mainly just rocks Pinterest.
- Cream Cheese Stuffed Carrot Cake with Orange Glaze – This is my “viral” post. I thought I knew what viral was until this recipe was shared by Real Housemoms. As of date it has over 330,000 reshares from their FB post. I think it has done well because it is an upclose, happy shot, a twist on a classic favorite and everyone loves “cream cheese stuffed” cakes and breads.
Nagi: What camera and lens do you mostly shoot with? Do you ever shoot with artificial light, or only natural?
Jen: I use an old school Canon T3i because its all about the lens in my opinion (and its what my husband already had ). Almost all of my overhead shots are taken with a 17-85mm lens. I used a 50mm lens for all my other shots until about a month ago, now I use my new macro lens – so my very newest posts are shot with that.
Nagi: Tell me your favorite foods! (Other than wings – we are kindred spirits!)
Jen: I LOVE anything that is sweet and spicy – the ying and yang of that flavor combination is my favorite in the world! That is probably why Mexican and Asian inspired dishes are my favorite because I can play off of that dynamic. If I had to pick one of my favorite recipes, it would be my Secret Ingredient Mongolian Beef. It pretty much sums me up!
“Money is not what drives me….”
Nagi: What drives you? You work harder on your blog than almost anyone I know!
Jen: I thought long and hard about his question – because honestly, I hadn’t thought of it before! I’ve concluded it’s a combination of things. Foremost, I am driven by my love of cooking. I would be cooking and creating blog or no blog, so having the platform to share excites me! I work hard on my posts because I want to be proud of every single recipe and I want people to actually make and try my food. Carlsbad Cravings will be around long after I am gone, so I want to accomplish as much as I can while I am here. I want my legacy to be delicious and beautiful!
Nagi: What is your ultimate goal with you blog? Is there a point when you think you will take a “back seat” and not work so hard?
Jen: My ultimate goal used to be to achieve 1 Million page views/month. Since reaching that goal, I don’t feel the need for “more, more, more.” I am content with my growth, but I will always have the drive to create because that is when I am happiest. I finally hired a VA, so in essence, I am taking a back seat in the promoting/everything-I-don’t-like-to-do department, and get to focus on cooking and photographing and let my VA run more of the “blog” aspect of it. YAY!
Nagi: Thank you so much for opening yourself up to me and FBC. I honestly cannot tell you what an inspiration you are. You still owe me a cake for the puffy eyes I woke up with after bawling my eyes out over your posts!
In closing, what words of wisdom do you have to growing bloggers out there?
Jen: I will bake you a cake for FBC in LA – I take requests.
Have fun, always give yourself a pat on the back and celebrate your victories. I see bloggers everywhere constantly getting discouraged and comparing themselves to others but please give yourself more credit!
If you are looking at another blog, it should be to learn something, not to belittle yourself (or them!). If you love cooking, are striving to improve your photography, networking and promoting, the growth will come.
But in 30 years, you aren’t really going to care about your page views, you are going to care about your loved ones and the time you did or didn’t spend with them. So have fun, do it because you love it, and don’t take yourself or blogging too seriously!
– Jen xo
In A NutShell….How Jen Did It
This is my condensed summary of How Jen Did It. To me, she encompasses all that I believe and teach here on FBC for what it takes to build a successful blog.
- Working damn hard;
- Heavy investment in promoting her content;
- Great photography – bright, sharp images with intense colors but not oversaturated and not overexposed. WITH a cheap camera!;
- Creative and unique recipes. Jen is the poster girl for this post I wrote on Creative Recipes with a strong “pitch”;
- Niche – Jen’s blog is not as easy to box into a niche as, for example, a blog focused on a particular type of diet. I would classify her blog as a “general food blog” but – and this is a big “but” – the standard of her blog is so high, she’s caught a captive audience who loves “her taste in food” and of course her new content is able to leverage off the high traffic she has;
- Researching and experimenting to promote herself. Finding and participating in sharing groups, being one of the “first movers” with long Pinterest pins; and
- The “X” factor. This is not something I’ve written about on FBC (yet). The “X” factor is an extra motivation that many successful entrepreneurs have, rather than just purely the financial gain. Jen has it. As soon as I read her backstory, it all “made sense”.
FINAL WORDS TO JEN
Thank you so much for opening up to us Jen. Not only about the challenges you faced / face, the pain you’ve experienced, but also the incredible strength and hope. And how much time and effort you put into this interview to share your blogging experience and words of wisdom with others!
You are an inspiration to me and when I was reading your responses to my questions, it put things into perspective for me too.
Most importantly, I love your reminder that we should have fun and do it because we love it! At the core of it, that’s what blogging is about. You can’t run a successful personal blog if your heart isn’t in it. It’s so obvious when love, enthusiasm and pride isn’t reflected in a post.
– Nagi x
PS I love that in one week, I’ll be meeting Jen in real life at the FBC Conference in LA (woo hoo!) so this space RIGHT HERE is reserved for a picture of Jen and me together!
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