Videos have become the Web’s central economy, and few genres win the Internet quite like food. It’s not just that pizza, cookies and ice cream are universal languages. Media giants increasingly see food as one of the Web’s most reliable star quantities: easily shared, eye-catching and designed to stand out in a distracting world.
Tastemade’s attempts at virality appear easygoing, but the Web-video machine built to create and share them has never been more complex, as new-money start-ups and established media giants do battle over the Web’s dollars and attention spans.
That high tension is on display during a recent tour of Tastemade’s headquarters, where most of the company’s 100 producers, coders, editors and video stars pump out hundreds of food videos a month.
How do they start? As recipes pitched in the company’s weekly brainstorm or in its daily programming-and-production team meeting, with producers bandying around ideas in a way not too dissimilar from a traditional TV writers’ room.
“Recipe developers,” as they’re called, look routinely at the data of previous food videos, from how long someone watches a recipe on Facebook to how often someone swipes up on Snapchat to learn more. Ideas that are out for now: Philly cheesesteaks, which underperformed in two recent videos, and the once-reliable bacon.
“Two years ago, it was known that if you put bacon in anything, it was a 2-to-3-times [traffic] multiplier,” said Jay Holzer, Tastemade’s head of production. “Now, people have kind of gotten over bacon.”
Even with the data, they are often surprised by what people want. A seemingly irresistible bacon chocolate doughnut garnered a relatively pitiful 5 million views. But an odd pizza made of mandolin-cut potatoes and topped with an egg went nuts, winning more than 90 million views on Facebook.
The developers work with “food stylists” to devise how the dishes will look and taste, and those ingredients are then prepared in a soundproof prep kitchen connected to the main soundstage. (You know how, in TV food shows, the chef grabs a perfectly prepared dish from beneath the counter? That still happens on the Web.)
On a recent Tuesday, Dini Klein, a New York-based personal chef and food vlogger, or video blogger, in a stylish blue, off-the-shoulder top, cooked one of the day’s back-to-back filmed recipes, smiling as she effortlessly mixed a bowl of brown sugar and mint for apple-pie latkes. A cameraman dangled precariously on a ladder a few feet above her, flanked by a small squadron of crew members behind the scenes.
Klein, whose YouTube channel Dini Delivers focuses on healthy kosher food, once dreamed of cooking on TV, but in pitch meetings she found producers “wanted middle-America, apple-pie, fattening food.” A few months ago, recruited by one of the company’s YouTube-stalking “treasure hunters,” she began cooking for Tastemade, flying to Santa Monica for full days of recipe shooting and Facebook Live streams.
At 27, the mother of two thought she was “too old” for Snapchat Discover’s target audience, but she has had some early success. She celebrated that a five-second video there had a “50 percent swipe-up rate” from viewers who wanted to see more. She expects she could be cast when sponsors such as Target or Nordstrom are looking for a trendy “millennial mom.”
"Now I don’t necessarily want a TV show anymore. I want to just cook and collaborate with cool brands,” Klein said. “It’s got me rethinking everything. Things are different now."
When Tastemade launched in 2012 as a YouTube network, its videos were rooted in the wide-screen video endemic to every movie theater and TV screen in America. But they now shoot a number of formats: vertical for phones, square for Instagram and wide for Facebook, YouTube and Apple TV. On set, monitors are marked with tape to line the bounds of what would show on a vertical screen.
About 70 percent of Tastemade’s 100 million monthly viewers are between 18 and 34, so designing for mobile video is a must. On the walls, screens showing the Tastemade app and Snapchat Discover feed are hung vertically, a reminder of how many young viewers see the world through their phones.
Tastemade’s main office is prototypical start-up, with trendy bikes in the corner, a kitchen of complimentary coconut water and desks made of reclaimed wood from a California house that one of the founders tore down.
But the office’s most prized amenity is its camera-ready soundstage, with its “mixologist” cocktail bar, a lounge floored with leather belts bought at Los Angeles vintage stores and a trendy “Brooklyn” kitchen roughly 10 times the size of a typical Brooklyn kitchen. One dollhouse-size kitchen, with functional miniature ovens and refrigerator lights, is used for the miniature meals it makes for its recurring video feature “Tiny Kitchen.”
The main “stadium” kitchen, with its window view of faux sunlight and potted ferns, comes closest to resembling a traditional cooking show: Tastemade programming chief Oren Katzeff said it was first modeled after the angelic whites of a “Martha Stewart-y” TV kitchen. In the years since, it has been color-splashed and modernized for the easily distracted millennial eye.
After filming, the raw footage moves from the soundstage to a large post-production suite, where two dozen headphone-wearing editors cut video from recent shoots across the world. In a color-correcting studio, a mixer tones the perfect yellow of lemons for a brand-sponsored travelogue. An audio mixer sits in a closet-size studio she calls the “sound womb”; during the visit, she fine-tuned a perky voice-over, “Sponsored by Grey Goose,” set for appending to a new episode.
Food videos seem perfectly attuned to the modern Web. Unlike, say, music, recipes can’t be copyrighted, so food start-ups have fewer legal landmines to dodge. Many recipes can be kept short and sweet, the favored intake preference of the snack-happy Web. And food videos are relatively cheap and simple to make — a lifesaver for most Web studios and start-ups, which intend to pump them out as often as possible.
The end results can appear so tantalizing that viewers often have found it hard to look away. Albertina Rizzo, a writer for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” tweeted this month, “Movie plot: Woman realizes 20 years have gone by after she finally looks up from watching ‘Tastemade’ videos on Facebook.” To cement they’ve truly made it, the Web-age satire site Clickhole in March published a Tastemade-style spoof recipe: A “warm egg” that required soaking a baguette for three months and warned against using “moonlight.”
To diversify beyond recipes, Tastemade’s chiefs have pushed other potential viral sensations. A favorite is “Cookie the News,” in which the sweet treats are baked to symbolize a current event. The producers gather in near-daily newsroom-style meetings to brainstorm ideas. The concept is silly, but Katzeff speaks of the editorial responsibility with a serious reverence.
“We’re not looking to be sensational or express our opinions. It’s truly just a means to deliver something big that is happening, through a cookie,” Katzeff said. A “Cookie the News” for Brexit — a puffy British morsel cut from a frosted E.U. flag — has been viewed nearly 4 million times.
They have also recently begun unveiling bite-size original series, such as “Alice in Paris” and “All the Pizza,” that tell short stories of travel or cooking and focus little on recipes. With more nuanced stories and higher production values, they could become candy to advertisers, though whether they’ll ever go as viral as a potato pizza remains unclear. Later this year, Tastemade will unveil its first comedy, a trial-show spoof called “Food Court,” in which parties litigate the details of cuisine.
But for all of their seeming simplicity, the videos’ creation, output and pace of delivery can prove stunningly complex. A schedule for a single Friday’s Snapchat Discover serving is loaded to the brim: A “Cookie the News” on Bryan Cranston joining the Power Rangers; videos of kalbi beef tacos and raspberry frozen-yogurt bark; two commissioned illustrations; and a recipe video whose title “OMG, This Cow Cake is Super Kawaii!” ends with a cow-face emoji.
The 100-employee staff works in offices across Santa Monica, Chicago, Austin and New York. Next month, offices will open in the Britain, Japan, Argentina and Brazil. Those global workers run foreign Tastemade channels — the Brazil offshoot on Facebook gets hundreds of millions of views a month — while also contributing local flavors (the more popular, the better) back to the mothership.
Food is the ultimate consumer medium, and as a theme it has fueled many of media’s most potent enterprises, from cookbooks to cable specials and reality TV.
It is also wonderfully aspirational. Does it matter that Americans are eating out more and cooking less? Tastemade executives say probably not. You don’t have to want to cook to enjoy watching a pizza bubble in the oven or a milkshake spin to life. You just have to be hungry, or have 10 seconds to spare.
Scripps, the Tastemade investor that also owns the Food Network and HGTV, saw this with the extraordinary popularity of its signature home-buying show, “House Hunters.” Its audience didn’t crumble during the housing crisis; it exploded, as viewers surrounded by foreclosed homes flocked to the American dream of real estate on cable TV.
Holzer, Tastemade’s head of production, draws a similar parallel. In a typical day, viewers take 100,000 screenshots of recipes and other images from Tastemade’s Snapchat Discover feed — a sign, he said, that Web video’s impact could go deeper than just a meal.
“I may not make the fudge,” Holzer said, “but, like, I’m inspired to make something.”