Four friends brew YouTube hit with cake in a mug

After exchanging recipes at a pub, a group of friends has created one of the world’s largest social media cookery channels.

By: New York Times | Published: August 3, 2014 12:26:10 am

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 sceptical about Spafford’s stated occupation.

But a week later, via email, the immigration officer said he had subscribed to Spafford’s website, Sorted Food, one of the most popular cooking channels on YouTube. “Keep up the good work!” the man wrote.

Created in 2010 by Spafford and three British partners, Sorted Food now has more than 8,65,000 subscribers. More than a quarter come from the US — the channel’s largest audience segment, followed closely by Britain.

What started as a part-time venture is now a full-time job for 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 8,00,000 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.

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 performer.

The typical video for Sorted Food features one of 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 Ebbrell.

Ebbrell, Spafford and the other partners, Barry Taylor and Mike Huttlestone, met at school in Hertfordshire, north of London, and went their separate ways. But on visits home, they would meet in a pub. And the talk often turned to food. “At university,” Spafford said, “we were all eating complete rubbish. With one exception: Ben.”

So Ebbrell, who at the time was studying culinary arts management, started sharing cheap and easy recipes with his friends on backs of beer coasters. Those recipes grew into a self-published cookbook, and, in May 2010, the four started the YouTube channel.

“It became an obvious way of sharing the recipes with more of our friends,” Ebbrell said.

Then the videos started gaining traction beyond their circle of friends. “It began by ‘Wow, we’ve got a hundred views’,” 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,” 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.”

So what next for Sorted Food? A cooking show on television? Spafford and Ebbrell say that is unlikely.

“We are yet to find a way that TV would work for us,” 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.”

Instead, the partners are seeking growth opportunities through their Sorted Food iPhone and iPad apps. The app allows users to 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.

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