When the COVID-19 outbreak began worsening in late February and mid-March, Tastemade’s digital series Struggle Meals was about to run out of episodes.
Season three had already been shot and was airing, but production on the next season wasn’t set to resume until much later in the year. Being able to shoot in a studio was far from certain. In the meantime, the show’s audience was clamoring for more content to help them create budget-friendly, waste-free meals as they grappled with stay-at-home orders and, in some cases, job losses that put even more pressure on their wallets.
The premise of Struggle Meals, after all, is to create “creative, nutritious, and inventive dishes that won’t break the bank,” as the show’s opening sequence chirps. Almost every Struggle Meal, energetically prepared by chef Frankie Celenza, costs less than $2 per serving.
Tatemade CEO Larry Fitzgibbon realized Struggle Meals was at an inflection point. Four years after the show debuted on Facebook Watch and soon became a phenomenon across other social media platforms (most notably Snapchat) as well as Tastemade’s own streaming network, Struggle Meals had never been more relevant.
And so, unable to shoot episodes in Tastemade’s studio kitchen, Celenza—a chatty, kinetic 34-year-old with wavy locks who’s up for an “Outstanding Culinary Host” Emmy Award—began cooking up dishes at his pad in Idaho and airing them on Instagram Live.
“We really wanted to talk to our community during this time because, obviously, it’s a time of struggle,” Fitzgibbon says. “People in our community were needing to change their own personal behavior and think about things like, ‘Oh, I’ve got leftovers—what do I do with these?’ Or, ‘Hey, I’m learning to do some new cooking techniques that I didn’t know how to do before.’ It was important for our community that we were there for them.”
The wager was correct.
Overall viewership for Struggle Meals, which has an audience of 1 million viewers cross-platform per week, shot up 40% between mid-March to May as Celenza taught his audience how to make a zesty white bean dip using just a handful of ingredients; how to combine canned tomatoes, frozen peas, and rice in a full-bodied meal; and how to turn peanut butter into a vegetable stir-fry sauce. (The show’s most popular episode ever was “Put an egg on it,” in which Celenza preaches the values of cracking an egg on top of, among other things, leftover rice and Ramen noodles. The show generated 6.3 million views on Facebook.)
Among Celenza’s other fiscally conscious innovations is his “packet drawer,” where he stores packets of soy sauce, ketchup, and other takeout sauces, resourcefully spilling them into dishes as he cooks. Through IG Live, Celenza has been able to interact in real time with his audience, taking their questions and suggestions. The looser format also brought innovations such as bringing on celebrity guests, including Shailene Woodley, who virtually cooked a vegan lentil dahl with Celenza on one episode.
“Tastemade has done a tremendous job over the past five years of creating hyper-engaging content for our community,” says Rachel Richardson, Snap’s head of editorial content. “It was so inspiring to watch Struggle Meals, in particular, quickly shift strategy at the onset of COVID-19 to deliver topical episodes that really resonate with Snapchatters and offer helpful solutions during this unprecedented time.”
But even without the COVID-19 boost, Struggle Meals is an example of a show that has tapped into the zeitgeist not with A-list trappings or a celebrity host—Celenza was an NYU undergrad when he started cooking cheap meals for friends in his loft, later posting them on YouTube—but a simple, practical premise that was then creatively deployed across digital screens. Indeed, production of the show is itself an experiment in efficiency: Tastemade shoots an episode of the show once, and then edits it for different formats. “We shoot everything on 4K, so that allows us to edit out all the different shapes and sizes we need for different platforms,” said Fitzgibbon. “That was one of our early innovations—shoot once but use many” times.
So for example, on YouTube and Facebook, Struggle Meals is shown in five-to-eight minute, easily digestible (no pun intended) clips, whereas on Snapchat and IGTV it might be 15 minutes worth of content that can be advanced by taps. Those episodes also conclude with a recipe card that users can screenshot. On Tastemade’s streaming network, the show is an even more of a lean-back experience, lasting 22 minutes.
The longer format has “allowed us to dive into some of the techniques a little bit more than in short form,” Fitzgibbon says. “Sometimes a recipe calls for something to be sautéed, or there might be knife skills. It allows us to raise the overall educational value.”
The show’s rabid community of “Strugglers,” meanwhile, has become an entity all its own, nowhere more so than in the show’s Facebook group that was formed in July 2018. Now nearly 60,000 strong, members share cooking tips with one another and “like” each others’ culinary experiments. More recently, conversations have revolved around quarantine issues, such as grocery shopping strategies (how often, what to buy, the pros and cons of food delivery) and ideas for pantry meals for vegetarians. Suggestions for the latter: Sriracha chickpea salad wraps, scrambled tofu, and “anything with eggs.” The group also discusses how to use vegetables they’re growing in their backyard and how to cut down on food waste—an issue that Celenza weaves into the show. On one episode, he showed how to use an entire stalk of broccoli by shaving down the stem to get rid of the hard, outer layer.
The group has certain rules—”Positive posts and vibes only!” and “No room for negativity”—which seem to be upheld. Tastemade administers the group, but it’s moderated by select members. Celenza also chimes in with ideas and tips. The effect is an intimate online gathering place for Strugglers as well as anyone, really, looking for information about how to be more frugal and efficient in the kitchen. It also provides feedback to Tastemade about what Struggle Meals‘ audience is most interested in and what they’re responding to on the show.
“We’re always listening to those bits of feedback that can inform the next episode we create,” says Fitzgibbon. “It’s amazing to me, the variety of things people are talking about, ranging from extending their budget to thinking about food waste. People who are now growing things in their backyard and wondering if anyone has ideas about, what can I do with these apples? It’s amazingly powerful. It just gives us a much better sense of who our audience is and what life stage they’re in.”
While Struggle Meals initially launched with an eye toward recent college graduates suddenly faced with having to cook for themselves, the show’s demo is actually much broader. There are new mothers who are now cooking for a larger household, and newlyweds making meals together for the first time, not to mention people of all ages looking to do more with less in the kitchen. Fitzgibbon says the audience is “still very millennial,” but it stretches up into the 18- to 34-year-old crowd as opposed to simply resonating with 18- to 24-year-olds.
The next frontier for the show may be moving beyond its own network.
Earlier this month, Struggle Meals partnered with Airbnb, which launched a series of online classes with celebrity chefs like David Chang and Claudette Zepeda—Celenza was asked to be among them. Struggle Meals was then able to leverage its platforms to drive sign-ups to the classes, which quickly sold out.
“That’s what modern media is,” says Fitzgibbon. “Using all the best of social and all the best of digital and pulling it through something that appears to be more of a traditional TV show.”