Elise Strachan recently remodeled her kitchen. This wouldn’t normally be something of note, but in Strachan’s case, her reasoning went far beyond being sick of her cabinets: She needed a new kitchen because of her home business. My Cupcake Addiction, Strachan’s YouTube channel and website, has over 1.9 million subscribers, generates more than $60,000 monthly in advertising revenue, and has provided the former flight attendant with a lucrative business. So an upgrade is understandable.
Strachan and her peers, ranging from the anarchistic Epic Meal Time to the British Sorted Food, and a host of others, have discovered something quite unusual: YouTube’s short, one-to-15 minute videos put it at a strategic advantage against traditional venues like The Food Network when it comes to reaching an audience. And although YouTube has yet to present its first Bobby Flay or Giada De Laurentiis to the world, that day is coming soon.
Although YouTube wasn’t created with cooking videos in mind, and established itself more with homegrown comedy videos and cute cat videos, it nonetheless has become a major hub for food content. Zefr, a rights management firm, estimates YouTube’s cooking vertical has approximately 800,000 videos with over 11.5 billion views across approximately 118,000 channels.
These videos–which range from professional productions to college students cooking brownies on dorm room hot plates–compare quite favorably with the viewership of television food content. Epic Meal Time has racked up approximately 774 million views on YouTube for their videos, and Tastemade (a food content network that Strachan belongs to) has generated approximately 26.8 million views on their channel. By comparison, No Reservations With Anthony Bourdain generated only 8.1 million views of clips on YouTube.
While comparing made-for-YouTube productions’ viewership numbers with those of online clips for old-guard television food shows is not a fair comparison, advertising revenue helps illuminate the dollars at stake. According to estimates by Outrigger Media published in Ad Age, My Cupcake Addiction generates approximately $64,000 monthly in earnings. Another channel, the child cooking series Charli’s Crafty Kitchen, generates an estimated $128,000 monthly. Sorted Food, meanwhile, now has 14 employees.
Rosanna Pansino, the Los Angeles-based host of Nerdy Nummies, didn’t expect to show up on billboards when she started posting video clips on YouTube. When I met with her at VidCon, Pansino was busy promoting her self-titled new cookbook, which is an Amazon best seller as of press time even though it is still in pre-orders for a November 3 release. It’s a long way from the videos she first created for fun shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2011.
“I was looking for ways to be more comfortable on camera,” Pansino told me. She was working small gigs on the fringes of Hollywood, and decided to make videos that mixed her love of cooking with geek culture callouts to Star Trek and other shows. Fans quickly cottoned on to her enthusiasm and format, and viewership exploded: Some of her videos have had over 70 million views. Although Pansino would not discuss the business side of her operations in detail with Fast Company, it’s worth noting her channel is in the top 1% for advertisers in all of YouTube along with Strachan’s.
Nerdy Nummies quickly became a family business. While Pansino remains the show’s brainchild and on-air presence, her sister and other family members handle production and much of the day-to-day work of Nerdy Nummies. Similarly, Elise Strachan’s husband quit his job as a police officer to handle the business side of My Cupcake Addiction.
Pansino, for her part, said she realized her show was becoming a big deal when strangers recognized her at a local Chipotle. “That’s when I realized it was changing,” she added.
This is a big part of the dichotomy between YouTube cooking shows and their televised alternatives. Television cooking shows have primarily been the territory of the food-savvy entrepreneur (See Wolfgang Puck and Rachael Ray, who entered television in the pre-YouTube era by turning her cooking classes into a weekly television news segment), while YouTube has primarily been hobbyist territory. When, as is the case with Nerdy Nummies and My Cupcake Addiction, fame strikes, friends and family often jump in to handle the business side of things.
But some companies are trying to find a middle ground between YouTube’s DIY food shows and the slick productions of cable television.
When I hopped on the phone with Tastemade’s cofounder, Steven Kydd, the entrepreneur had a surprise for me: Facebook matters almost as much to their distribution as YouTube. “We started uploading our videos natively to Facebook last year, and our Facebook viewership has been exploding,” Kydd told me. “Our Facebook viewership is very close to eclipsing our YouTube viewership.” Although the company’s roots is in creating food content for YouTube, it seems they seem Facebook, Apple TV, Roku, and other channels as essential for the growth of Internet food shows as a vertical.
The company bridges the gap between traditional cable television and the new anarchic world of Internet video. Kydd and cofounders Larry Fitzgibbon and Joe Perez are all media industry veterans. Cable companies Scripps Networks Interactive (Food Network), Comcast (through investment arm Comcast Ventures), and Liberty Media are all investors in the firm, which works with food content creators through a variety of partnerships.
“We started Tastemade because there are all these tastemakers around the world, chefs and talent who don’t necessarily fit through a television lens who have large audiences, are super-talented, and air to multiple audiences around world.” Japan and Brazil are Tastemade’s largest markets after the United States, and are a significant area for the company’s attentions.
By his estimates, approximately 70% of Tastemade’s viewers are watching their videos on mobile devices. He noted that the production process for mobilecentric content is much different, and that “the old chef dump-and-stir format” doesn’t necessarily work on mobile platforms. But Tastemade’s videos, which range from short cooking clips to travelogues, are largely designed to do much the same thing as conventional cable television–sell ads.
At VidCon, Pansino and Strachan both appeared on a panel called “Cooking Shows Beyond Cable.” Their question-and-answer period was packed with questions from attendees either making or looking to make their own Internet food content. It was less the question of becoming a multimedia star than of making a cooking show for niche audiences–rather those are science fiction-loving pastry fans, people with celiac disease, or keepers of Kosher or halal diets.
That is to say, while television cooking shows embrace a safe middle-of-the-road, Internet cooking shows embrace the niche.
The real question for Tastemade, YouTube, Vimeo, and other players in the industry is what happens when the Internet really does get its first breakout food celebrity. Will they make the jump from making YouTube videos in their garage to their own cable television show? Or, even more interestingly, will they be able to build multimedia empires, open restaurants, and receive lucrative endorsement deals without even doing the television part of things?
We’ll find out sooner rather than later.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect current viewer metrics for Strachan and Pansino.