Real Life

‘I turned my hobby into a six-figure business!’

How Taupō mum Vanya became a foodie sensation with her own empire

When COVID swept through Aotearoa, hordes of Kiwis turned to their kitchens as a source of entertainment, with more loaves of banana bread and trays of ginger crunch created than ever before.

But while most of us gave up on our dreams of becoming the next Nadia Lim as soon as takeaways were available again, mum-of-two Vanya Insull was creating a foodie empire.

After quitting her glamorous job as a magazine art director in Auckland to move to Taupō in 2016, Vanya found herself struggling to figure out her new identity. Where once her days involved rubbing shoulders with celebrities on photo shoots, now she was in a new city, caring full-time for her sons Archie, now eight, and Henry, six, and yearning for a creative outlet.

“I was in baby mode looking after my kids and, at first, it was nice slowing down,” Vanya, 39, tells Woman’s Day. “But after doing a bit of graphic design for a local company, I felt a bit lost and realised I’d better create my own job.”

Leaning into her passion for food, ignited during her work in magazines, Vanya began posting videos of her family meals to a Facebook page she called “VJ Cooks”. The first – a clip of her son Archie picking spinach from the garden, which she then turned into filo pastries – garnered a couple of hundred views.

But just a few videos later, right before Christmas, Vanya’s post about a mango pavlova got 50,000 views in just three days.

“It was in that moment that I realised I could really make something of this,” Vanya tells.

Juggling motherhood and a burgeoning following of foodies, Vanya found herself in the kitchen creating family-friendly recipes whenever she could – in between Henry’s naps and Archie’s kindy pick-ups, and when the whole house was asleep at night.

“I’d be editing photos and uploading videos, hunched over the computer from 8pm to 11pm every day,” Vanya says. “And I loved it!”

Despite several viral videos – including a Weet-Bix slice that garnered over a million views in just a month – and a legion of at-home cooks hungry for more of Vanya’s recipes, it took two years of tireless work before Vanya began earning any money.

“My first-ever sponsored post earned me a $100 food voucher,” Vanya recalls. “Not long after, I got sent a box filled with gourmet cuts of meat, which made me cry.

My husband Mike is a builder and we were just living off a single wage. To know that my work was going to feed my family really meant something special.”

The boost was exactly what Vanya needed. As more sponsored posts rolled in, she created an Instagram page, documenting her easy, budget-friendly weeknight dinners for people to follow. The videos were authentically Vanya – warm, welcoming and no frills.

“People would comment on a video, ‘My mum tagged me in your post and she lives in Wellington,’ and then people overseas started jumping on,” Vanya says. “That’s when I started At first,

I would only make a dollar a day, but then it grew to $200 a month from advertising.”

As her following expanded to a whopping 148,000 followers on Facebook and 63,000 on Instagram, so did Vanya’s team. She hired four part-time employees made up of her two sisters and two fellow mothers.

“I love supporting other mums,” Vanya adds. “We work hard, but we have so much fun together. Food bloggers are really stereotyped. People think you’re just cooking for fun, but they don’t realise how many hours go into it behind the scenes. Each website post takes about 10 hours from creation to finished product.”

Along with creating an e-newsletter and starting a club where members can score exclusive recipes, Vanya is about to drop her very first cookbook.

“My audience kept asking me for a cookbook, so I found a publisher, emailed them and scored a Zoom meeting. At first, they were like, ‘We don’t know if we see a spot for another food blogger’s cookbook.’ They pretty much turned me down!

“But I persisted and backed myself, explaining this wasn’t a coffee-table book – I wanted it to be about affordable everyday recipes that get food splattered all over them because they’re used so much.”

And just like everything that has come from her VJ Cooks empire, it all came down to Vanya simply believing in her passion.

“I really want other stay-at-home mums or anyone wanting to turn their hobby into a business to just back themselves,” she grins.

“Surround yourself with hype people and don’t be afraid to ask questions – I still do it all the time. I’m living my dream job and you can too!”

Everyday Favourites (Allen & Unwin NZ, $40) hits shelves on 5 July.

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