In a YouTube video posted earlier this year, Logan Paul stands perplexed in the beverage aisle of a Walmart. “Help me understand, honestly,” says the YouTuber-turned-boxer, pointing to the shelves where Prime, a sports drink he launched in January with former rival KSI, is sandwiched between bottles of Gatorade and Powerade. “We made a better-for-you drink that tastes better, so why the fuck would we not overtake Gatorade eventually?” he asks. “There needs to be a…consumer and cultural shift regarding hydration beverages that we have to lead.” On cue, a member of his team jumps in to agree, “Everything has advanced with time,” they assure him. “This hasn’t, it’s a dinosaur, bro.”
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Over the past few years, YouTube creators like Paul have been jumping off screens and into grocery aisles, leveraging their massive followings to springboard international snack, beverage, and dining businesses. Like celebrities, many creators make money endorsing brands or collaborating with them on a custom drink flavor, for example. But that dynamic is beginning to shift. Traditional media stars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Kevin Hart have been cutting out the middleman to create their own food businesses, and YouTube creators are following suit. After more than a decade of propping up the reputations of big-name brands, YouTube creators are seeking to build them themselves.
Former rivals KSI and Logan Paul de-prioritize punches in favor of promoting their hydration drink,Prime.
Credit: Logan Paul on YouTube
Keith Habersberger of the four-member collective The Try Guys sells hot sauces to the group’s 7.8 million subscribers. Another Try Guy, Zach Kornfeld, sells custom tea blends he created to soothe his chronic pain. Ryan Higa, a Japanese-American creator who has 21 million subscribers, created the tea line Ninja Melk. And Emma Chamberlain, one of the few women in the space, has seen great success with Chamberlain Coffee, a company she started to satiate her own caffeine addiction. A study of American teens from April showed that Chamberlain was Gen Z’s favorite influencer, ahead of Johnson, Zendaya, and Kanye West. Last week, she appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, coffee samples in tow.
Chamberlain and Fallon give her caffeine fix a go.
Credit: The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
The most successful of these ventures, arguably, has been MrBeast Burger, a virtual restaurant launched in August 2020 by 24-year-old Jimmy Donaldson, whose MrBeast YouTube channel currently boasts 97 million subscribers and 16 billion video views. To make MrBeast Burger available in more than 1,000 locations across the U.S. and U.K, Donaldson employs local ghost kitchens to prepare, package, and deliver MrBeast Burger-branded menu items through delivery apps like UberEats and Doordash. His marketing strategy was releasing a YouTube video about the brand on the day of launch that now has more than 110 million views.
The endeavor was a first within the creator community and caught the attention of the food industry at large. “There was a lot of surprise because it was such a different model… and it was done really well, on a large scale,” says former RxBar President Jim Murray of MrBeast Burger. Within the food industry, he explains, “I think there was a lot of like, ‘Oh, wow, this could be the new way of building brands and businesses.’ That was the general sentiment that I was aware of and [it] made me intrigued to talk to Jimmy.”
Murray now runs Donaldson’s consumer packaged goods brand Feastables, overseeing a team of eight to bring the snack line to groceries around the country. Donaldson’s YouTube content revolves around elaborate games (“Squid Game in Real Life,” 258 million views), ludicrous stunts (“I Spent 50 Hours Buried Alive,” 178 million views), and giving away large sums of money (“Anything You Can Fit In The Circle I’ll Pay For,” 164 million views). Murray envisions building Feastables into a “treats and snacks portfolio” that reflects the outlandishness of Donaldson’s content and is “centered around gamification.” Feastables’ first product, a line of chocolate bars, came with the chance to win a chocolate factory, à la Willy Wonka. “We want to build a brand that’s focused on bringing the excitement… the games… everything Jimmy’s built on his YouTube channel to his audience’s doorstep and in the grocery aisle,” says Murray.
The Feastables packaging still prominently features MrBeasts’ name, but some creators are looking to move away from recognizable name-based branding to build businesses that stand on their own. KSI’s friend group, a seven-member UK YouTuber collective known as The Sidemen, has 120 million combined followers. By 2021, the group had already leveled up its branded merchandise from basic tees to streetwear-inspired drops of bucket hats, candles, and chocolate eggs. Since then, they’ve launched two direct-to-consumer products: a best-selling spirit called XIX Vodka and the virtual restaurant brand Sides. Like MrBeast Burger, Sides leverages a ghost kitchen network to deliver its menus across hundreds of sites in the UK, U.S., the UAE, and Norway.
Sidemen TBJZL, Vikkstar123, Miniminter, W2S, Behzinga, and Zerkaa try Sides’ burgers and wings.
Credit: Sides/ Arcade Media
The ultimate aim of these ventures is to make loyal customers out of people who don’t know who the Sidemen are. “What we’re trying to do is to build these brands and these businesses that outlive what the boys are doing,” says Jordan Schwarzenberger of Arcade Media, the Sidemen’s management company. “So although they start off with fans first… the premise is for them to not be seen as merch but as independent brands in their own right… We’re trying to appeal to everybody.”
While they acquire customers on e-commerce food delivery apps, a single physical location in London brings a “tangible experience” to Sidemen fandom. The e-commerce experience “kind of loses that soul you get when you’re actually experiencing it in a proper place,” says Schwarzenberger. A physical location brings the Sidemen brand to life and bolsters the value of Sides Plus, their membership club for super fans, which now offers an “eat and greet” opportunity with the Sidemen at the restaurant. “The aim of it in a lot of ways is to bring fans together through food,” says Schwarzenberger, “just as we want to bring fans together through partying or through the membership club.”
Sides burgers, slated for sale.
Credit: Sides/ Arcade Media
For other creators, building out a physical eatery is a business bet so much as a creative one. In 2013, Brits Josh Carrott and his college friend Ollie Kendal opened a Korean-language YouTube channel to introduce elements of British culture to Koreans. By 2017, “Korean Englishman” was one of the most-watched YouTube channels in South Korea. The duo became national celebrities and unofficial ambassadors for the country, introducing stars like Ryan Reynolds to Korean alcohol and David Beckham to Korean beef.
When COVID restricted international travel, Carrott and Kendal turned their attention toward their home turf of London. Global interest in K-pop, K-dramas, K-beauty, and media like Parasite and Squid Games have made Brits more curious about the country’s culture. “There’s this interest to try the food that you see in these dramas and films,” Carrott says. They began introducing locals to “Korean food lite” like kimchi and Korean barbecue, adds Adam Utting, the Chief Strategy Officer of Korean Englishman and the duo’s second channel JOLLY.
Then, in the fall of 2021, a wild hair of an idea took hold. In 2008, Kendal visited Carrott in Korea and became smitten with Korean street toast. Would Londoners fall in love with it, too? Through a restaurateur connection, the team booked a Thomas Heatherwick-designed magazine kiosk in a plum spot in Granary Square, a highly trafficked thoroughfare near Kings Cross Station. Carrott’s wife Gabie Kook, an Argentinian-born Korean YouTuber with a degree from Le Cordon Bleu, helped with recipe development. “It’s all ingredients that they know, just done in a way they’ve never done before,” says Carrott. Plus, “The things we do eat [in the UK] are often on toast: cheese on toast, beans on toast, toast with an English breakfast.”
They assumed that fans would show up for the first few weeks before the buzz fizzled out. Instead, they couldn’t make toast fast enough for customers who had never heard of their YouTube channel and were instead drawn in by word of mouth or by the long line snaking through the square.
At the mention of Feastables’ Wonka-sized gambit, Carrott and Utting laugh. “That’s so classic MrBeast,” says Utting. “We have so much admiration for those guys.” Their kiosk, called Korean Toast, is “definitely more of a passion project than what MrBeast and Sidemen are doing, [which is] definitely business diversification… For us this is more like, how do we just cook some street toast for people in London? And from that angle, it’s successful. We wanted to share Korean toast with more people, and have some fun doing it… For us, a big driver is that creativity, like, ‘What can we do? What’s new?'”
So while Korean Toast was creatively and financially successful (it was profitable, though Utting and Carrot wouldn’t share specifics), it’s not the best business move. “In terms of scalability, we’re at the opposite end of the spectrum of [our main] business [where] we make a video that can get 3 to 10 million views, but the input is basically the same [every time for those views]. Whereas with this it’s like, if you want to 10X your toast business it’s a lot more work.”
Carrott and Kendal smile behind the counter of Korean Toast.
Credit: Korean Englishman
For Utting, the project does point to the growing power and reach of YouTube creators. “From a YouTuber’s perspective, even if we were talking four years ago, the concept of opening a Korean toast kiosk in central London [was unheard of]… People have been coming up to me and saying, ‘How is [Korean Toast] so popular? And in my mind, I’m like, ‘Well, my friends have literally done nine years of building a business, building a relationship with an audience. And then we open a tiny kiosk that can serve a few people at a time. You do the math on it… YouTube is no longer this kind of teenagers’ secret entertainment platform. It’s a legit, business-driving platform.”
Last week, I walked by a Vitamin Shoppe and did a double-take when I saw stacks of Prime in the front window. The bright, simple bottles bear no mention of Paul or KSI. Anyone walking into the store could pick one up and take it home, without a clue that its founders are two of the world’s biggest YouTubers. And that’s kind of the point. After reviving a reputation mired in scandal, it’s possible Paul sees Prime as a path to profitability that won’t be derailed by his public image. It’s also a way for Paul and KSI to redefine their personal brands while pushing the boundaries of internet fame. In an Instagram livestream announcing the drink, Paul enveloped KSI, whom he has twice tried to knock out in multi-million dollar boxing matches, in a bear hug. “No longer rivals,” Paul said, mid-embrace, “[we’re] business partners.”