The short, simple food videos that have fueled Tastemade’s rapid rise on the Web start here, in a 7,000-square-foot soundstage in Silicon Beach.
An MTV studio in the 1990s, it now houses six sets crafted for viral splendor, including an atomic-era-style kitchen specially designed to fit within a mobile phone’s vertical-video frame.
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. The firm’s intricate workflow was on display during a recent tour of its 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.
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% of Tastemade’s 100 million monthly viewers are between 18 and 34, so designing for mobile video is a must.
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 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. It has since 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.
Tastemade’s chiefs have diversified beyond recipes. One example is “Cookie the News,” in which the sweet treats are baked to symbolize a current event. 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.
The staff works in offices across Santa Monica, Chicago, New York and Austin, Texas. Next month, offices will open in Britain, Japan, Argentina and Brazil. The global workers run foreign Tastemade channels while also contributing local flavors (the more popular, the better) back to the mother ship.
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. 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.”
Drew Harwell is a national business reporter at the Washington Post.