Forgo McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Former Miami Heat player Ray Allen and wife Shannon are openingGrown, a new fast-food concept in South Miami (8211 S. Dixie Hwy.) this March.
Developed by the couple, Grown is said to be “real food, cooked slow, for fast people,” meaning it fuses a farm-to-table concept using organic, local, and nutritious ingredients with the essence of a fast-food locale.
“Grown was born out of frustration,” Shannon says. “At home, I do my best to prepare delicious, nutrient-dense meals for our five children, including our son Walker, who is living with type 1 diabetes. Like most busy families, we juggle homework, after-school sports, and everyday commitments — we live in our cars. I had an aha moment where I realized I couldn’t sit around helpless waiting for someone else to create a fast-food option that met our family’s dietary needs.”
To help conceive Shannon’s idea, the couple organized a team of experts to build Grown from the ground up. Dubbed the “kitchen cabinet,” the health-knowledge squad that worked with the pair includes Michael Rose of Rose Capital Advisors; Tara Mardigan, director of nutrition at Fruit Street Health and former team nutritionist for the Boston Red Sox; Asha Loring, executive director of Health in the Hood; Faheem Mujahid, a trainer and holistic lifestyle coach; Sally Sampson, founder of ChopChop, a family-oriented cooking magazine; and Gabriele Marewski, founder of Paradise Farms Organic in Homestead.
Todd Kiley, previously of Boston’s Legendary Restaurant Group and Rainforest Café, will be the eatery’s executive chef. He, along with Ray and Shannon, crafted an easy-to-navigate menu highlighting organic and locally sourced foods. Though dishes are made in a healthful way, they’re still approachable and appetizing to adults, children, and families.
Using an open-kitchen concept, the restaurant will offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner plates ranging from $4 to $18 and all made from scratch daily. Menu items include small-batch soups, salads, sandwiches, and wraps; gluten-free baked goods; and customizable cold-pressed juices and fruit smoothies. There will be family-style meal options too.
All dishes will be available for sit-down, take-out, and through its full-service drive-thru. Guests can eat in the 38-seat dining room or on the patio, which seats up to 42.
For private luncheons, dinners, and small parties, Grown offers a space dubbed the “Kindergarden,” which will also house special events such as nutritional workshops, cooking classes, and wellness demos.
The 1,900-square-foot space will also include an urban rooftop garden, which will produce a variety of fruits and vegetables that will be used for the eatery. Chefs will transport the greenery to the kitchen using a dumbwaiter system.
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Investors seem willing to pay just about anything for a better burger.
Half a dozen food chains have held piping-hot stock market debuts in the past year to meet a growing appetite for “fast-casual” restaurants catering to younger and more affluent diners willing to pay more for fresher, higher quality fare than they expect to find at traditional fast food places like McDonald’s.
Wall Street hopes the new crop of publicly traded eateries will replicate the success of Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc, which has grown to about 1,800 restaurants since its 2006 debut. With consumer spending showing signs of improvement and more diners keen on antibiotic-free meats and other healthy foods, now is a great time for restaurants in that niche, especially ones adept at building grass-roots buzz and loyalty, experts said.
But investors have pushed the shares of some of those restaurants — Shake Shack Inc, Zoe’s Kitchen Inc and Habit Restaurants Inc — to sky-high levels that imply growth expectations that may prove hard for the management to deliver.
Shake Shack — the big outperformer — is up 260 percent since it went public at the end of January. As a group, shares of established restaurant companies have outperformed the broader stock market exponentially, with the Dow Jones U.S. Restaurants & Bars Index (which doesn’t include these newcomers) rising 11 percent this year, compared with the Standard & Poor’s 2 percent increase.
Based on the number of locations open at the end of 2014, Shake Shack’s current stock price values its restaurants at $40 million each, four times the stock market value of a Chipotle restaurant and 15 times the value investors assign to a McDonald’s Corp restaurant.
Brad Lamensdorf, who co-manages the AdvisorShares Ranger Equity Bear ETF, said he would short Shake Shack’s shares, except that his broker has none left after lending his last at a staggering 65 percent annual interest rate. At that rate, short sellers would have to pay out more than 5 percent of their investment every month while waiting for Shake Shack’s stock to fall, which may not happen.
“Just because a stock looks expensive doesn’t make it a great short. It’s way too expensive to borrow,” Lamensdorf said, adding it might become more feasible in July after insiders restricted following Shake Shack’s January IPO are allowed to sell their shares. Almost 40 percent of Shake Shack’s shares are currently short-sold.
Lamensdorf is also shorting Chipotle, betting that the company’s expansion is about to lose steam. Chipotle is down 7 percent so far in 2015. Another fast-casual chain, Buffalo Wild Wings, is down 13 percent, with investors concerned about slowing growth momentum at both chains.
And some may already have lost their luster: Shares of Chicago-based sandwich chain Potbelly Corp more than doubled in their first trading session after its IPO in 2013. But since then, the company’s growth has failed to impress investors and its stock sells now for about a dollar more than the $14 a share it fetched when it first went public.
More fast-casual restaurant IPOs are in the works. Nashville, Tennessee-based J. Alexander’s Holdings Inc and Fogo de Chao, a steakhouse chain offering 20 cuts of meat in Brazilian-style tableside barbecue service, have both filed with U.S. regulators for IPOs.
Habit, which opened in 1969 and is known in California for its charburgers, is up 120 percent since its November IPO. Zoe’s Kitchen, which serves Mediterranean cuisine with Southern hospitality, has doubled since its IPO in April 2014.
High prices for the newly listed stocks reflect a scarcity of high-growth restaurants to invest in as well as Wall Street’s confidence in companies’ management teams, said Piper Jaffray analyst Nicole Miller Regan, who has “overweight” ratings on Zoe’s and Habit and does not cover Shake Shack.
“Look at Chipotle. It’s not a burrito company, it’s an ATM,” Miller Regan said. “I don’t care what cuisine you put through there — it’s a phenomenal return.”
Shake Shack’s PEG ratio (price/earnings over its expected next year’s growth — a measure of a stock’s value that accounts for expected profit growth), is 156 compared to 1.6 for Chipotle. Lower PEGs suggest cheaper stocks. Zoe’s PEG is 2.5 and Habit stands at 4.6. By comparison, Internet giant Twitter Inc has a PEG of just 0.8, suggesting it is well priced for its expected growth.
Habit, Zoe’s and Shake Shack declined to comment on their stock valuations.
To justify its recent stock price, Shake Shack would need to establish more than 400 company-run or franchised restaurants within about five years, estimated Georgetown University business professor James Angel.
With a new location in Austin, Texas, Shake Shack now has 68 restaurants in the United States and other countries; it has said it plans to open at least 10 domestic locations annually and expand abroad.
Shake Shack, which says its key to success is a culture of “enlightened hospitality,” is a master of word-of-mouth marketing. It has more than 1,800 Instagram followers for every $1 million spent across its locations, compared with 11 for McDonald’s Corp and 60 for Taco Bell, a fact that Goldman Sachs has cited as helping build loyalty among millennials.
Habit on Thursday posted March-quarter revenue above expectations but its full-year revenue outlook was shy of consensus, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Shake Shack posts its quarterly results on May 13.
“Do they have a unique value proposition with their customers? Yes. Is it hard to replicate? Yes,” said Bob Goldin, Executive Vice President of food services consultancy Technomic. “But is it impossible? Absolutely not.”
(Reporting by Noel Randewich; editing by Linda Stern and John Pickering)
This article originally appeared at Reuters. Copyright 2015. Follow Reuters on Twitter.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In the past decade, food-themed television has gone from Emeril Lagasse‘s “Bam!” to chefs bow-hunting for buffalo in the Arkansas backcountry. That colorful scene, from a recent episode of Nat Geo’s Eric Greenspan Is Hungry, is not an outlier. It’s part of an onslaught of new culinary series on a half-dozen cable networks and marks a major departure for the genre. Call it the Anthony Bourdain effect.
“The beautiful thing about food programming is the ability to be broad,” says Tim Pastore, president of original programming and production at Nat Geo U.S., who also has ordered booze-centric Chug and six-part doc EAT. “It’s a way to grab our core audience but also attract new viewers, to find a new demographic.”
Bourdain, with his landmark No Reservations on Travel Channel, and Bizarre Eats‘ AndrewZimmern laid the groundwork for food exploration on TV. And now that Bourdain is a CNN poster boy, nabbing Emmys and driving the struggling news net’s biggest ratings with Parts Unknown, many are seeking to duplicate that success — including his former network. Travel launches Breaking Borders with Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio in 2015. The 13-episode order puts Voltaggio and journalist Mariana van Zeller in war-torn countries to resolve conflict through cuisine.
It’s an evolved food TV landscape from the days of just Food Network and Bravo’s Top Chef, admits Ross Babbit, senior vp programming and development at Travel Channel: “We want to convey the uniqueness of food and how culture is expressed in food. That’s what you saw with Bourdain and Zimmern and now with Breaking Borders.”
Food also is an obvious choice for upstart lifestyle networks like Esquire and FYI — both of which have made it a focus. “People are interested in shows that they can see themselves experiencing, as opposed to just passively watching,” says Esquire originals head Matt Hanna, who has a Bourdain-produced offering in The Getaway. “Food is an equalizer, but making it relatable to people’s everyday lives is the challenge. You want to create something that can be watched across all platforms.”
FYI is being equally aggressive in the culinary space. The new A+E-owned network’s culinary offerings skew toward comedy with things such as Epic Meal Empire, a cooking show-meets-Mythbusters. This is where execs see wide-open spaces for expansion. Coming at food from different points of view — be it humor or history, adventure and exploration, politics or hunting — allows for a broader audience.
“Most people don’t actually want to be a renowned chef or the best baker, but they do want to taste the best noodles in Thailand or curry in India,” adds Hanna. “It’s all about giving viewers a visceral experience that immerses them in sounds, smells and tastes.”
It’s a Thursday at Tastemade’s studio and she’s got about 45 minutes’ worth of work to do before cameras can roll on her weekly cooking show, The Healthy Voyager, and she’s decorating the standard set with her own autumnal touches. I follow her as she grabs a cart and heads to the prep kitchen, grabbing basics like oil and salt, plus small bowls and plates to dress her set. Filming can take a brisk 30 minutes or less on a single episode, but that’s thanks to all the hard work Scott-Hamilton has to put in before they call action.
“I always bring all my own props because so many people use these sets,” Scott-Hamilton explains. “I make it a little different. I’m a holiday freak, so for the holiday ones, I have everything. For the other stuff, my signature stuff is my compost bin and towels and and flowers that match that. I pull out all the ingredients I need and measure them. I don’t show all the chopping; it’s boring to watch. And it makes it easier to film if everything’s pre-set.”
Food content is a major driver in the YouTube space, according to a Google research study. Subscriptions to food channels grew 280 percent in 2014. Half of all adults who consume YouTube content consume food content, and millennial consumers engage with 30 percent more foodie content than any other demographic. Those views translate to purchases in the food space, with 68 percent of moms buying items featured on the YouTube videos they view. Food even made the cut when YouTube decided to market their own stars in this year’s splashy ad campaign, with Rosanna Pansino’s “Nerdy Nummies” taking the spotlight alongside Michelle Phan and Bethany Mota.
But for the bulk of that scene, the YouTube DIY crowd, a cooking show is not all Martha Stewart glamour. There isn’t an endless stream of assistants to help pre-frost cupcakes or measure out ingredients. Often there’s barely even a second take.
“I figure out my menu a month in advance,” Scott-Hamilton says. “We shoot two days in a row per month, and I knock out a ton at once. I usually do three or four [episodes] each day. A month beforehand, I figure out what I’m going to cook so I know the timing, and if I can get any sponsorships, they have time to send me the stuff. The week of the shoot, I do all the shopping or pre-prep. I’m doing cornbread stuffing today, so I made the stuffing at home so we don’t have to wait around 60 minutes while it bakes. There’s some trickery for sure, but it’s all my recipes.”
For the YouTube DIY crowd, a cooking show is not all Martha Stewart glamour.
Scott-Hamilton has the advantage of being a part of Tastemade, a two-year-old multichannel network focused on the food demographic on YouTube. Tastemade provides her a set at its Santa Monica stage to film her segments each month, and the Tastemade team works with her on branding deals, as they do for hundreds of other food-based video creators around the world.
“Our tagline has always been, ‘Connect the world through food,’” Tastemade Head of Production Jay Holzer told The Kernel. “We wanted to be a global social version of a cooking company. There’s three components to us: There’s the studio portion of our business. We’re a creator of award-winning programming—we won a James Beard award for one of our shows. We’re also a multichannel network. We have people across the globe we work with… all these creators we work with who fall under the Tastemade umbrella. We’re similar to the other MCNs in the operational bits, but we’re different in that we’re vertically focused. We’re definitely focused on quality over quantity.”
Tastemade’s third component is an app aimed at helping home cooks and video hopefuls make the leap to filming their own shows. It allows users to make a one-minute food show from their mobile device; it takes away some of the pressure if you’re just using the HD camera everyone has in their pocket, Holzer reasons.
“Video is intimidating,” Holzer says. “That’s why we made the Tastemade app. We wanted to make the process of creating high-quality video in the food space as easy as taking pictures. In the same way Instagram set out to make you a better photographer, the Tastemade app should make you a better filmmaker.”
Food programming is more than just pointing and shooting, however. Food is notoriously tricky to shoot well, and Tastemade’s value to the DIY chef is the company’s years of expertise helping creators work in their medium.
“Food’s unique in that it is challenging to make it look good on camera, and it’s got logistical challenges to film,” explained Holzer. “There are great food shows that shoot in their home and have embraced the DIY aspect. There’s definitely people who do it purely from a DIY standpoint, but it takes a lot of practice and a lot of knowhow just in terms of how you work with food from a production standpoint. We have a full prep kitchen. If you’re doing it yourself, at home you don’t have those luxuries; you’re shooting in the same kitchen where you make dinner for your family.”
“In the same way Instagram set out to make you a better photographer, the Tastemade app should make you a better filmmaker.” —Tastemade Head of Production Jay Holzer
Scott-Hamilton says having Tastemade behind her has made certain aspects of her career much easier, although she’s still “chief cook and bottle washer” of her whole enterprise.
“I got lucky that I live local and can use this set, because my kitchen sucks,” she laughs. “[The set] lends itself to a professionalism that I wouldn’t have at home.”
Scott-Hamilton suggests aspiring food show hosts focus on finding their niche and emphasizing what makes them stand out from the rest of the food world. For Scott-Hamilton, that’s a focus on vegan cooking. The food part of her digital empire grew out her traveling and often being unable to find suitable vegan options around the world.
“I started with my travel show in ’06, and that came out of necessity,” she explained. “I’ve been vegan since ’98, and I’ve been figuring out menus and doing funky stuff. I figured I must not be the only person who suffers when they travel. I started pitching it around as a show, and everyone loved it, but it was way too early in the game of healthy travel. So I started on my own, in the infancy of YouTube.”
The YouTube show has since taken on a life of its own. She often has special guests on her shows, like Sleepy Hollow’s Orlando Jones during her Halloween episode. Scott-Hamilton no longer works as a private chef, which gives her more time to focus on the travel and food shows. She’s also shied away from mainstream established routes to cooking fame, like popular television competition shows.
“They’re not very kind to vegans,” she said. “They make vegans look bad. I don’t want to be subject to that. I’ve been asked to judge some shows; I’ll do that, no problem. If I were a regular chef I totally would, but I think they want to purposely make vegans look bad.”
With her own show, she can control the discourse and really showcase vegan cooking for an audience that cares. But with that control comes a lot of responsibility that falls squarely on Scott-Hamilton’s shoulders. After she finishes her prep and does a costume and makeup change, her three-person crew, plus her husband, finish setting up sound and cameras for the first episode. Back on set, Scott-Hamilton poses as her director leaps up on the countertop and coordinates all the cameras to roll at once, including an overhead rig to get her ingredient action.
Without a teleprompter, Scott-Hamilton nails her lines in a single take, even doing an extra for variety, but once the ingredients for her vegan cornbread stuffing get poured in the pot, there’s no turning back. Scott-Hamilton doesn’t have the time or budget for extra versions of the prep, so every take counts. Those kinds of issues would be alleviated in a television production, and Scott-Hamilton admits that she’s working toward a food career that goes beyond YouTube.
“It’s a one-woman show, and it’s tough. But if you want something done, you can’t wait for it to happen; you just gotta keep plugging away.” —Carolyn Scott-Hamilton
“That’s the end game for sure,” Scott-Hamilton says. “I do a lot of TV already, I do the Today Show and Ricki Lake Show. [My YouTube channel] is building the brand. I love doing the show, but it would be nice to walk in and [see] everything is done. It’s a one-woman show, and it’s tough. But if you want something done, you can’t wait for it to happen; you just gotta keep plugging away.”
Holzer says he thinks the changing world of digital in the past few years has shifted many YouTube chef’s priorities to a digital focus.
“The content landscape is dramatically changing,” Holzer explains. “You can build as successful of a business online as you can in the traditional avenues. Of course we have people who start a YouTube cooking show because they want a TV cooking show, but we have just as many if not more who start a YouTube cooking show because there’s an amazing business that can be made building a brand around an online show.”
Some YouTubers have already cashed in on mainstream fame. The guys behind Epic Meal Time made the jump to TV this year with Epic Meal Empire on the FYI Network. YouTube has also attracted seasoned chefs who want to expand their domains and find a more personal touch, since the space offers a kind of flexibility you don’t find with a television show. For example, heavyweight Jamie Oliver has begun focusing on his digital presence, even partnering with YouTube’s drunk sweetheart Hannah Hart on videos.
“You can connect with audience in a way that you can’t when you have a 30-minute television show,” Holzer says. “The line between the two will continue blur as more players get into the over-the-top distribution game, when you start to see what you think of as online media next to traditional media on the same devices. The line is going to blur enough that digital is going to be just as attractive if not more attractive than traditional.”
In the meantime, DIY chefs are continuing to cook up content for their dedicated followers.
Early Thursday at a party in Coral Gables next door to Ray Allen’s house, seven 18- and 19-year-olds decided they wanted to see how a former Miami Heat player lived.
It looked like no one was home about 2 a.m., so they walked in through an unlocked back door.
Allen wasn’t home, but his wife, Shannon Walker Allen, and their kids were sleeping upstairs, according to Coral Gables police spokeswoman Kelly Denham. When the intruders began walking around and making noise, Shannon Allen woke up and screamed, “What are you doing in my home?”
The intruders bolted, and Shannon Allen called police. Officers determined that nothing had been removed from the home on Tahiti Beach Island Road.
The next-door neighbor who had hosted the party directed police to an address where the seven intruders were located. The young men told police they thought the Allens had moved. Allen, who recently became a free agent, has not yet announced where he will play next season.
Police questioned the men for several hours before releasing them about noon Thursday.
Denham explained that because there was no forced entry, no intent and nothing was taken, police did not charge them with burglary, and the crime does not qualify as trespassing — a misdemeanor —because the act was not witnessed by a police officer.
However, Shannon Allen can still file trespassing charges with the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, and said she intends to do so, according to Denham.
Courting younger demographic after cutting back on Emeril
2/8/2008 Broadcasting & Cable
Much like one who tires of eating broiled chicken for dinner too many Friday nights, Food Network has lately felt the need to mix things up a bit. The big question: Would a tweaked recipe bring more revenue and prime viewers to the table?
The network began asking the question last July in the wake of sagging ratings for its anchor show Emeril Live, which it then moved from 8 p.m. to 7 p.m. When the network ceased production of new episodes as of Dec. 11, the move led some to question whether Food could continue reaching the masses by relying on newly built stars.
But by making this transition, Food has become more palatable to viewers and advertisers alike. In addition to retaining some established stars and marketing new ones, the network has continued to develop non-instructional reality shows for prime. Now Food is adding new advertisers to its already-loyal partners. A subsequent increase in revenue, paired with an investment in consumer products lines and online partnerships, like a recent Food store powered by Cooking.com, point to healthy profits.
With renewed commitments from fan favorites Rachael Ray and Alton Brown, Food’s talent pool—including tattoo-plastered, spiky-haired Guy Fieri and ice hockey player/model-cum TV chef Danny Boome—skews younger, and the network has broken new advertiser categories such as electronics. In January 2008, its median age in prime was 45.6; in 2003, it was 50.3, according to Nielsen.
The addition of more reality fare, like the Fieri/Marc Summers-hosted Ultimate Recipe Showdown at night, has allowed for brand integrations that weren’t possible previously. (The Scripps-owned network, to some advertisers’ chagrin, remains continually steadfast in not showing product branding labels in its instructional cooking shows.)
“New talent is part of what makes the network exciting,” says General Manager Sergei Kuharsky. A former marketer for Johnson & Johnson, Kuharsky has helped spearhead an expanding line of Food Network products at Kohl’s, the partnership with Cooking.com and cookbook deals for new talent like Ellie Krieger. “Emeril had an incredible run like Friends, Frasier and Seinfeld. We celebrate that success—and we look forward to the new.”
The network is projected to grow ad revenue by 7.4% in 2008 and 9.4% in 2009 to $446 million, according to SNL Kagan research. Operating revenue is projected to grow 8.1% in 2008 and 9.4% in 2009 to $567.6 million. While the network’s total day viewing dipped 5% in 2007 to an average 556,000 total viewers, it was up 3% in prime to 799,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Food plans to premiere one new show a month for the next year, its most ambitious slate ever. In January, it debuted Ray’s new travel series Rachael’s Vacation, and Jamie At Home, a daytime cooking series that saw the return of Naked Chef Jamie Oliver to the network.
This month brings Ultimate Recipe Showdown and Down Home with the Neelys, in which an African-American couple of restaurateurs cook BBQ comfort food. The latter premiered as the network’s most-watched series in the five years of its In the Kitchen weekend block, with some 2 million viewers. March’s entrant is Rescue Chef, a daytime weekend show in which Boome helps regular cooks solve their culinary dilemmas.
Heading into this season’s upfront, the network is pitching advertisers on the benefits of hooking up with new talent as they rise. It has signed deals for two of its stars with major brand names, although at presstime could not say on the record which brands. And it has been finding new ways to blend product integrations into primetime reality shows—the winner of Ultimate Recipe Showdown, for instance, gets their recipe on the menu of TGI Fridays, along with $25,000.
“We’re in the world everyone else is in, trying to understand the best way to keep the editorial voice clean, while also in a fun way incorporating advertisers and brands when it fits with the show,” says Karen Grinthal, Food’s senior VP of ad sales.
Media buyers are responding kindly, many saying that the cutting back of Lagasse—who maintains a development deal with Food, and will continue to produce new episodes of Essence of Emeril through 2008—perhaps improved the network’s standing with some clients.
“[The network has] grown to the point where they’re bigger than some of their talent,” says Bill Holba, who works with packaged good products as VP/associate director of national broadcast for Initiative. “And they’ve got a corner in the market that no one’s taking away at this point.”
“Food Network has done a good job at seeking out and developing talent,” says Dave Kornett, senior VP of national broadcast at PHD. “I would have every confidence they’ll be able to replace talent that’s leaving with a more younger and current feel.”
Chefs like Kogi’s Roy Choi are using trucks to bring high-end food to the masses at drive-through prices
Every movement needs a creation myth, and the gourmet-food-truck movement has a really good one. In 1996, Roy Choi, a law-school dropout and a general disappointment to his Korean-immigrant parents, was watching the Food Network one afternoon, eating Cheetos while coming down from some serious drugs, when suddenly Emeril Lagasse started talking directly to him. “He came out of the TV,” Choi recalls, “and said, ‘Smell this. Touch this. Taste this. Do something.'”
Choi, now 40, was in no position to argue with an out-of-body Emeril experience, so he got off his couch in Los Angeles and enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He worked his way up to chef de cuisine at Los Angeles’ Beverly Hilton and got fired as chef at Rocksugar, the Cheesecake Factory’s attempt at Asian street food, before he found his calling in a kitchen on wheels.
Gourmet food trucks are democratizing the local- and slow-food trends that started with restaurateur Alice Waters in Berkeley, Calif., and were spread by the Food Network. Although the goal of these trucks is to be quick, convenient and cheap, they are decidedly anti–fast food. They’re about dispensing Alice Waters food in a McDonald’s manner.
Choi, who does his proselytizing from a fleet of culinary clunkers, became the leader of this movement not just by creating a whole new cuisine–a mashup of Korean and Mexican food that has given rise to short-rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas–but by dishing out punk attitude. Peer inside one of his Kogi taco trucks (the name is Korean for meat), and you’ll see him yelling in Spanglish, baseball hat askew, arms tatted up, hands flying like a rapper’s. This is performance art, and people often wait in hour-long lines for the privilege of snarfing it down with a spork.
“Why is this $2 taco affecting people on this level?” Choi asks, standing next to one of his four trucks. “You have these famous chefs and farmers’ markets with fresh vegetables, and you have fast food–and nothing in between,” he says. “If I introduced you to 100 people in my life, 90 of them will never have eaten real Parmesan cheese.”
It doesn’t really matter that gourmet food trucks were busting out in American cities a few years before Choi parked his first food truck, in November 2008. Or that short-rib tacos weren’t even his idea. (A former co-worker’s sister-in-law, Alice Shin, had read about a homemade version on a food blog and, as Kogi’s publicist, helped hype them through masterful Twitter and website work, which turned the truck’s mysterious whereabouts into a hipster happening.) Choi’s amazing food has become one of the movement’s signature successes. Kogi made $2 million in revenue in its first year, on checks averaging $13 per person. It has given rise to a number of copycat Korean-taco trucks and inspired the Baja Fresh chain to add short-rib tacos to its menu.
And Choi’s sensitive-burnout passion is the movement’s story. He gets choked up about replacing McDonald’s cuisine with freshly prepared, price-competitive, high-end food. “It’s convenient to eat horrible food, and it’s so difficult to eat great food. It’s O.K. to eat flaming-hot Cheetos and never read books or eat vegetables,” he says. “This is where we’ve come as a country, and I’m not cool with it.”
By the end of March, Choi is scheduled to open a restaurant in an old strip mall; he and his partners bought the space for $30,000. They’re not going to fix it up and instead will serve $7-to-$9 rice bowls–including lacquered pork belly, and steak topped with horseradish cream and poached eggs–in the 30-seat space, where Choi believes he can somehow serve 1,000 people a night. Kogi’s current operations serve about 3,000 a day.
It’s not just fast turnover, small portions and cheaper cuts of meat that allow Choi to charge such low prices. “A Caesar salad at a lot of places is $12, but a Caesar salad costs $1.80 to make,” he says, putting out a Marlboro. The insane markups come from a tired old formula, he continues: “Get a space in
a high-rent district and hire [ultra-opulent interior architect] Adam Tihany to design it. It costs $1.5 [million] to $2 million for you to open a restaurant. So what’s your attitude? ‘We have to gouge those m____________.'”
Choi’s low-cost philosophy–and his kimchi quesadilla–inspired Beth Kellerhals, a former chef at Chicago’s Hot Chocolate, to take him her beer-and-pretzel ice cream sandwich and persuade him to start selling her desserts. “Working in fine dining, I liked the precision and commitment to good ingredients, but it’s just food,” she says. “Don’t take it so seriously. Have fun while you’re eating.”
But Choi takes it all very seriously. He wants to bring farm-raised, artisanal food to the masses. In addition to the new restaurant in L.A., he’s looking to expand to another city with his trucks. One of his dreams involves a traveling foodapalooza where Eminem performs onstage while farmers sell their veggies at booths nearby.
He thinks there’s a chance it might all come together–maybe when he finally talks to Emeril, whose people just called him to set up a meeting. “I’ll meet one of the big boys and see if he’ll ride with me on this mission to broaden the food landscape,” Choi says. “It’s 2010. Let’s start feeding people. Let’s get out there.”
Since its humble beginnings as a Montreal-based print publication on news and culture, Vice has mushroomed to 129 million views per month across its platforms, which include online channels, TV shows, its tablet and mobile offerings, and the original magazine (not to mention Vice Music, Film and Books).
Vice’s digital mission for next year, which will be unveiled at its first NewFronts presentation on May 2, is all about expansion, especially for recently launched site Vice News and food vertical Munchies. Chief creative officer Eddy Moretti asserts that no publisher has kept up with how prevalent food has become in youth culture. Vice is putting itself in prime position with a slate of cuisine-themed programs, including F-ck, That’s Delicious hosted by rapper Action Bronson.
“Ten years ago, the coolest kids would be in bands. Now you see the cool kids … they’re saying ‘F-ck it, you know what’s cool? A wood-burning pizzeria with farm-to-table f-cking tomatillos,’” Moretti said.“This is 2014. The standard for language, nudity and what’s acceptable for a young audience has completely changed,” he said.
Kerry Tracy, CEO of media agency Working Media Group, pointed out that any number of fashion, video game and extreme sports brands would be clamoring to get their products next to Vice material.
“Even with an edgy brand, you take that risk of being associated with content that is continually pushing the envelope. That said, some brands are looking for that exposure and association,” he said.
It hasn’t stopped the likes of AT&T, Intel or Budweiser from signing on.
Vice is open for new advertisers as it continues the uphill battle that all digital publishers face with distribution and monetization. Vice News launched with minimal ad support and like many outlets will not put ads on breaking news, Creighton pointed out. However, it is looking for marketers to sponsor franchises, including the to-be-announced show about the environment, Toxic.
Companies commit to greater minority representation
As a congressional committee holds a Los Angeles hearing today devoted largely to the impact of the Comcast and NBC Universal transaction on diversity, the companies are unveiling a new series of public interest commitments designed to boost minority representation on and off screen.
Comcast, which already had committed to adding two independently owned and operated cable networks to its systems for each of the next three years, is pledging that at least half of them will have substantial ownership by minorities. NBC Universal also says that it has committed to a major effort to identify minority buyers for Los Angeles Spanish-language station KWHY-TV, which it is divesting from its portfolio.
Among other commitments, the companies also say they will establish four external “Diversity Advisory Councils,” representative of African-American, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander and other communities, that will meet at least two times per year with Comcast and NBC Universal execs, including an annual meeting with Comcast’s chairman and chief executive officer. Comcast will appoint up to nine members to each advisory council, with input from national minority leadership organizations, and will develop a strategic plan related to diversity, with benchmark studies updated annually.
The two companies’ new commitments come after some criticism over their records in hiring and minority representation, in particular from Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. At a congressional hearing in February, she chided NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker for a lack of NBC shows aimed at African-American audiences. In a letter to the FCC, she cited low marks that the companies have received by the National Hispanic Media Coalition in the hiring of Latinos in their executive ranks.
She pushed for today’s House Judiciary Committee field hearing at the California Science Center, where representatives from a number of groups including the Hispanic Media Coalition, the National Coalition of African-American Owned Media and the National Assn. of Latino Independent Producers are expected to testify. A number of watchdog orgs have long been critical of all networks, with the NAACP releasing a report in 2008 showing what it called a “serious shortage of minority faces in primetime,” although they did report gains in reality TV.
For their part, NBC U and Comcast released a letter from entrepreneur Magic Johnson in support of the transaction, in which the basketball legend says that NBC U’s commitment to diversity “is long-term and real” and that it is “one of the few companies where I’ve witnessed a CEO who makes diversity and inclusion one of his company’s five business imperatives.”
Representing the network at today’s hearing will be Paula Madison, its executive vice president of diversity. Also expected is Alfred Liggins, the president and CEO of Radio One, which is in partnership with Comcast in the African-American oriented cable channel TV One.
LONDON — When Jamie Spafford, a 27-year-old Briton, passed through airport passport control during a visit to New York a few months ago, the immigration agent seemed skeptical about Mr. Spafford’s stated occupation.
But a week later, via email, the immigration officer said he had subscribed to Mr. Spafford’s website, Sorted Food, one of the most popular cooking channels on YouTube.
“Just had a chance to check out your videos and thought I would let you know just how good and interesting they are,” the man wrote. “Keep up the good work!”
Created in 2010 by Mr. Spafford and three British partners, Sorted Food has quickly attracted more than 865,000 subscribers. More than a quarter come from the United States — the channel’s largest audience segment, followed closely by Britain. The rest are spread worldwide.
This quick success has helped Mr. Spafford and his partners — like thousands of other YouTube entrepreneurs — turn a do-it-yourself side project into a business supported by advertising, sponsorships and other digital revenue.
What started as a part-time venture is now a full-time job for Mr. Spafford, his partners and their 14 employees, who work in a studio in North London. Sorted Food expects revenue to reach $3.5 million this year.
It is remarkable growth for a site that generates more than 11,000 hours of viewer traffic a day and whose most-viewed video is a three-minute segment, watched about 800,000 times, showing how to make a microwave cake in a coffee mug.
While still not as popular as comedy or gaming channels, which measure their audiences in tens of millions of subscribers, cooking and food is the fastest-growing genre on YouTube, according to Google, which owns the video-sharing service.
Last year, YouTube’s top 20 cooking channels generated nearly 370 million views and more than doubled their subscribers. Among cooking channels, Sorted Food is YouTube’s top global performer, according to OpenSlate, an online video statistics provider. The site leads OpenSlate’s rankings in “audience engagement, consistency and interaction,” as measured by subscribers, likes, comments and sharing of the videos.
Mr. Oliver, like another well-known British chef, Gordon Ramsay, has a YouTube channel to complement his television programs. Mr. Oliver’s channel presents his own recipes but also promotes segments from other YouTube cooking channels — including Sorted Food.
Online cooking offers “an immediacy that you just can’t get from traditional programming,” Mr. Oliver wrote in an email exchange. “The beauty of Food Tube is that we can film something in five minutes and have it up on the site for people to watch within the hour.”
Audience interaction with online cooking is a function of the digital environment itself, said Joshua Green, a media scholar and co-author of “YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture.”
“Networked culture allows for little pockets of fascination to bubble up and YouTube allows us to marvel at the skills of others,” Mr. Green said. “And food is one of those things that are very human to be curious about.”
The typical video for Sorted Food features one of Mr. Spafford’s partners, Ben Ebbrell, the only trained chef in the group, creating dishes as varied as a simple mac-and-cheese and elaborate-looking îles flottantes — “floating islands” — of soft meringues enveloped in a caramel cage.
“It’s all about easy, cheap and tasty recipes that look great,” said Mr. Ebbrell, whose signature finishing touch on many dishes is a sprig of fresh mint.
Mr. Ebbrell, Mr. Spafford and the other partners, Barry Taylor and Mike Huttlestone, met at school in Hertfordshire, north of London, and went their separate ways to attend different universities. But on visits home, they would meet in a pub. And the talk often turned to food.
“At university,” Mr. Spafford said, “we were all eating complete rubbish. With one exception: Ben.”
So Mr. Ebbrell, who at the time was studying culinary arts management at University College Birmingham, started sharing cheap and easy recipes with his friends using the backs of beer coasters.
Those recipes grew into a self-published cookbook, and, in May 2010, the four started the Sorted Food YouTube channel. “It became an obvious way of sharing the recipes with more of our friends because it’s a platform we kind of naturally had in our pockets anyway,” Mr. Ebbrell said.
Then the videos started gaining traction beyond their circle of friends. “It began by ‘Wow, we’ve got a hundred views,’ ” Mr. Ebbrell recalled. “But we’ve only got 40 friends on Facebook, so who are these other 60 people?”
That following quickly grew.
“My dream as a child was to be a chef, to create my own recipes and cook in a restaurant for 50 to 60 people a day,” Mr. Ebbrell said. “What we are doing now is exactly the same, but it’s not just 50 or 60 people, it’s hundreds of thousands from all around the world.”
And those users often play an active role. With the video for chocolate cake in a mug, for example, many comments raised questions about the instant coffee powder listed as one of the ingredients.
“I don’t like coffee. So can I just leave out?” asked one user, Lauren Burnett. Sorted Food responded, “It’ll be fine without it.”
But others offered their own suggestions. A user named Vic Chaotic said he had replaced the coffee with a tablespoon of Nutella, and the cake “was absolutely decadent.” Another, BeaSan95, had a different suggestion: “I also added some rum instead of the coffee, so good!”
Sorted Food is part of the YouTube Partners program, in which operators of the channels share advertising revenue with Google. The program features more than a million creators from over 30 countries.
In addition to ad revenue, Sorted Food relies on partnerships with companies like Tesco, the British supermarket chain, which recently sponsored a Sorted Food trip to Ireland to explore the production of chocolate. Another partner, Kenwood, the appliance maker, supplies the group with equipment in exchange for product placement in the videos.
So what next for Sorted Food? A cooking show on television?
Mr. Spafford and Mr. Ebbrell say that is unlikely.
“We are yet to find a way that TV would work for us,” Mr. Spafford said. “With YouTube we have complete control of what we put out, when we put it out and what we edit. It’s also much more interactive.”
Mr. Ebbrell recalls approaching television companies a few years ago to pitch ideas. “But they weren’t convinced by YouTube,” he said. “That has come full circle now. We are now being approached by TV companies, but we are not prepared to give up what we do for TV.”
Instead, the partners are seeking growth opportunities through their Sorted Food iPhone and iPad apps, which they introduced this month. Meant to mimic social networks like Facebook, the app lets users create profiles, upload recipes, repost cooking videos and follow other users.
Since its July 1 debut, the app has been downloaded more than 35,000 times, according to Sorted Food, and was featured as “Best New App” on Apple’s App Store in 16 countries. A redesigned Sorted Food website, offering those same functions, is to be introduced in the coming weeks.
“This is a great opportunity to create a global cooking community,” Mr. Spafford said. “It’s about the personal food journey that you can share with others.”