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Magazine publisher makes a career of supporting local food biz

Mary Bailey celebrates 25 years at the helm of Edmonton food magazine, The Tomato.
Mary Bailey has made a career in publishing rather by accident, following stints in the hospitality industry. Photo submitted.

Mary Bailey had zero experience in the publishing business when she decided to launch a magazine focusing on the local food scene in Edmonton. Now she's celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Tomato food and wine magazine, the city's oldest culinary publication.

Bailey had experience in the hospitality industry, had worked in a wine shop and had sommelier training. But the local food scene was beginning to blossom beyond its earlier takeout and franchise offerings, and she felt an opportunity existed to delve into the expanded industry in a bigger way. Fond of a magazine called City Palate published out of Calgary, Bailey paid a fee to piggyback on its name and published an Edmonton edition. 

After a few years, she decided to sever the tie with City Palate and go it alone. The debut of The Tomato was published as a September/October 1996 edition, and a quarter-century on, the magazine continues to publish six times a year. It has subscribers but largely survives financially off advertising revenues, like most print publications.

The Tomato, sort of a hybrid between a newspaper and a magazine, also publishes online and offers a weekly newsletter called The Bite. "Juicy. Versatile. Saucy," reads a magazine promo, promising coverage of the local "shared gastronomic culture" created by chefs, farmers, ranchers, kitchen stores, wine merchants, restaurateurs and anyone who enjoys a good recipe.

Bailey says she loves the creative process and the people she meets while publishing a magazine. She recalls that as a youngster, when at a restaurant with her parents, she was fascinated by the "very special sounds," the hustle and bustle, even the occasional broken dish in the kitchen. "I think there's such an alchemy in cooking," she said.

Now publishing the magazine satisfies both her curiosity about food creation and her creative drive.  "I can't dance, I can't paint, but I can write," she declared.

The magazine changed its focus slightly during the pandemic, publishing information to help the struggling local hospitality industry. It included technical information about restaurant openings--which businesses were offering dine-in, takeout and deliveries.

The pandemic also triggered an evolutionary step in the restaurant business and the growth of meal kits offered for home delivery. Isolation appears to have made more attractive the idea of home kits with proportioned, pre-designed meals, including preparation instructions and, in the case of one restaurant, a Zoom link to get advice from a chef. 

Bailey recalls one of the first local meal kits came from Corso 32 restaurant, with boxes containing pastas, sauces, the accoutrements and precise instructions for preparation. Soon, other restaurants were offering kits for everything from Peking duck to sushi and barbecue meals. "Nobody had even heard of a meal kit before the pandemic started. But restaurants were left scrambling to figure out how to get their food brands to customers, so food kits became a popular option," she said.

Jan Thalheimer has designed the magazine since 2006. She says The Tomato has become "much snappier" since the early days, with improved content and design.

"I think it supports the local food scene as it has evolved. There's more focus on locally grown and produced items," Thalheimer said. "I think it is an important document. Mary doesn't provide articles that (critically) review restaurants or local business people; she supports them positively." 

And Bailey is unapologetic about not including critical food reviews. "Nobody reviews shoe stores -- why review restaurants?" she asked. 

Amidst the demise of many a print publication, and despite large hikes in newsprint prices, Bailey says she plans to continue publishing a paper edition of the magazine for the foreseeable future, along with the web site edition. She has found that even some people under 30 enjoy a print version, since it is easier to follow along with a recipe compared with one on a small telephone screen. "And right now, our sales are good," she said.