Foodbeast is to food what Hypebeast is to hype [insert bad joke here]. Now in its sixth year of operation, the one-time dorm room challenge blog has developed into a major player in the modern online food scene, commanding over 3 million page views per month and over a million monthly hits on its widely popular YouTube channel. Aside from the site’s daily musings on shock value culinary concoctions, this humble web destination continues its independent march to winning hearts and appetites as the chubby slash lovable new kid on the block.
Carving a niche of its own, much like its source of inspiration, Foodbeast continues to create a portal of curiosity not only for gluttons who challenge the battery life of the human heart, but for a large portion of the Internet’s fascination with off-the-wall content. In addition to its service as a daily bookmark for a countless legion, the Santa Ana-based company has also become a go-to agency for food industry heavyweights, from Dreyer’s Ice Cream to Jack in the Box, who rely on the beast’s expertise to develop their own campaigns for the masses.
On a sunny afternoon I made my way to Foodbeast’s headquarters in the OC to meet up with founding partner Elie Ayrouth and his team of palatable creatives to gain a better understanding of their operation, while planning my heist from their delectable pantry. We also spoke about the site’s own industry beef and how this new generation of foodies has become a source of inspiration for classic publications of the past.
Foodbeast founder and lover of porcelain cheeseburgers, Elie Ayrouth
How’d you get into graffiti?
Well, graffiti is a unique kind of field, you’ve got to be artistic and you’ve got to be awesome at what you do and you got to not give a shit. I always take pride in myself for not giving a shit, so that’s why I got into graffiti. And the next logical step was starting the world’s best food blog. It was literally the logical next step. [laughs]
But really, I’m a super dorky kid at heart. I was always creating websites. My first website was a Pok'emon site. It was literally the number 1 Pok'emon fan site at the time. I was always into Pok'emon.
When was this?
Fifth grade, in ’99. It was called Pokeeworld.com, with two E’s. Pokeworld was a porn site, I think. And the only access I had to the Internet was through my family’s AOL account so I was on a kids’ only thing. Unfortunately I couldn’t get onto pokeworld.com.
In college I noticed there was a lapse in food websites that spoke to me. I didn’t really get the Food Network. I knew I liked food but I didn’t understand how they were talking to me. I searched the web and I found out about bon app'etit and I found out about Serious Eats and other very niche and specific food blogs. And then there was everyone else’s own food blog at the time too, where they’re talking about the cool five star restaurants they went to. I just didn’t give a shit about any of it. I was like, “Someone needs to talk to these people about food. There’s gotta be somewhere on the Internet about food.” At the time, I was a big frequenter of Hypebeast and I loved what they were doing with fashion. That’s where Hypebeast stepped in and I thought why not do the same thing for food?
So we started in 2008. It kind of took off from there, it was a shitty little blog, we just talked about stuff that my friends were eating. We started off doing these challenges. One of our dorm mates was like, “I can eat whatever.” We’re like, “Okay, cool. Sloppy Joe challenge.” He ate 17 sloppy joes in the kitchen, and he fucking yacked. He got up to the 17th Joe, and ran to the bathroom and—the post might still be on the site—but he projectile vomited across the hallway on his way to the bathroom. That post got a lot of traffic in our dormitory and got a little love outside of our UCI [University of California Irvine] community. After that, I thought, “There’s something here for shock food.” And I think we’ve kind of led the way for this new age of food online. I lump us in more with Epic Meal Time—all those people have led a new generation of foodie that still understands food but you don’t have to talk about it the way you used to, the French cuisine culinary way.
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At what point did you realize, “Hey, I have something here that might not necessarily generate money, but something long term”? Something more long term than a little blog.
It started junior year of college. That whole time, I never thought about it as something that would make money. It was just something to keep my writing skills up because I love to write, but I wasn’t getting that outlet anywhere else. I graduated two years later and I was working in marketing, fucking hawking. Worked at this company that sold air conditioners online, and I was working in their marketing department doing photo and all that. There were a couple posts on our site that went really viral. [I was doing their site by myself] and when I saw the spike in traffic and the spike in ad revenue I was like, shit, I made more with this in one day than I’m going to make in one week at this fucking job. I quit.
When that traffic hit, the site crashed. I didn’t have a tech background, so I approached Rudy who did. I went to high school with him and he hopped on for a couple of PBRs and a cigar. Later on we ran into Geoff, who we also went to high school with. He’s more of the business savvy one, so he hopped on and was like, “Let me try to get us some ad deals.” So at that point we’re like, “Can we afford $300 a month to pay for this shack in Costa Mesa that we can call an office?” That was the turning point. That’s all it took really, to have an office. It wasn’t elaborate, it was literally a converted warehouse space. 300 square feet. We sat right next to each other, one bathroom, we had no kitchen, so we cooked in the bathroom. We cooked eggs in the bathroom… it was fucking gross. So we laid out there for a year until ad revenue went up and then we fielded some offers for money, but then we decided, “Shit, can we keep this close to the belt and keep doing what we want?” We were really fortunate and the stars aligned. Lots of late nights. But that was the turning point, the $300 of rent.
I feel like people are drawn to the outrageous, the stuff that you’re not supposed to eat that looks different, that’s not the norm. But I’ve also noticed America becoming a little more concerned about their health. Food trucks seem to be slowing down. With perception changing like that, how do you guys go along with that? In terms of content and creation?
There’s definitely a health boom, even internally. We write about the unhealthy stuff, but what’s funny is traffic still goes up because people are living vicariously through these lavish meals that you shouldn’t eat. So when we cover people like Epic Meal Time, we really grasp the shock food stuff. No one’s really going to eat this 100 pound burger but we’ll happily watch someone else eat it. Or I’ll happily gaze at a picture. To be honest, I only eat 2% of what we talk about, just because I either don’t have access, some of it’s too expensive for me, or some of it is going to kill me. I enjoy reading the site everyday because I’m like, “Oh, shit that looks really beautiful and gorgeous,” but I might not be able to eat that. And that usually lends to a shareability. People share the content—“Don’t you wish we could eat this?” That’s been a conversation. Even with health booming and people at least being more aware of nutrition. It doesn’t mean people are more healthy, just aware. So we go through these phases where we hire a juice guy and he brings in juices every week but we still eat like shit. At least we’re conscious about what we’re eating, and I think as long as you approach that consciousness, it helps with content too.
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When you guys do tastings, how do you approach something like that? Does the restaurant hit you up when they’re opening and want you to evaluate the food? Have you seen that some of these outlets value some of your opinions more when it comes to stuff like that?
Yeah, that’s always been a hot button thing, internally, for us. Because we get invited to every last restaurant opening and there’s only so much time in the day and we don’t want to take advantage of anyone that we’re not gonna write about. A lot of restaurants are under this weird assumption that if we write about them, that they’re going to be successful forever, and that’s not the case. Sometimes they don’t understand the value of us going to the restaurant and Instagramming it. There’s a higher value in that than sometimes an article on the website. One thing that bugs me that I wish they’d understand more is if you have a restaurant with not that crazy of a menu, what you want is for any other person in media, or Foodbeast, to come and interact with you socially. You want them to Instagram your food and tag that location. You’re going to get more from that than an entire recount of your restaurant on our site. We’ve seen restaurants really develop after we Instagram them because we have a decent reach but also because we’re followed by people with a decent reach as well. So we might Instagram one day and then the next day there’s a celeb who Instagrams the same thing to his audience and that ricochets.
We can’t review every restaurant and we don’t. We really pick based on items, so if there’s an item or experience to be had, that’s where you’re going to get our attention. But if you’re Mexican restaurant B or Mexican restaurant C down the street, that’s great. We’ll eat there and have fun and potentially Instagram it, but we’re not going to lead you on that we’re going to write something about you.
I trust Yelp religiously, to a fault. I was in Napa recently after a long day of hiking in San Francisco. We were starving and found a local Italian place through Yelp. It had great reviews and we were down for just about anything at that point. I got the ravioli—and I mean, my palette isn’t super refined—but I could’ve sworn it tasted like Chef Boyardee. [laughs]
Did you send that shit back or what?
I wasn’t feeling it and I was pissed, but at the same time I was hungry. I guess I was more mad that Yelp gave all these super high reviews. The thing is, you never know how valid these things are. Do you put a lot of trust in apps like that?
I absolutely use Yelp. Yelp was a big contention point for us early on because I want to make sure we don’t review things. That’s what Yelp is for and it aggregates it. But—like your situation with that entire experience—it was almost a crowd effect. Where it wasn’t good, but somehow because you went in there thinking it would be good because 58 out of 60 people said it was. And that’s crazy. I’m sure there’s lots of places that get more love than they should because of a crowd effect. Yelp isn’t without its pitfalls but I absolutely still use it. Because I would say—a high majority of the time—Yelp is pretty accurate. If it’s fucking 2 of 5 stars, it’s probably pretty shitty. But there are those occasions where you get that stupid spot that got a bunch of people dick riding it for a while and now it’s at the top. Yelp is weird in that sense.
Elie clearing out said pantry
We spoke about this earlier, about how this new age approach to food isn’t as fancy as it might have been in the past. Do you ever feel like some of these established publications look down on the newer generation of food enthusiasts?
We thought that early on, we felt like, “Damn, we must be those rowdy kids on the block.” And we thought that until we saw these bigger publications like the bon app'etit’s and the Food Networks starting up their more lifestyle D-squad blogs where they start covering the stuff that we were covering. Like, they would never promote on the homepage but if you dig deep, they actually have a section where they’re talking about Burger King’s new sandwich. But if that showed up on the homepage, then that’s no longer bon app'etit. So we know that they’re curious about it, because they’re putting in resources to cover it. And I don’t think it’s valuable for us to keep considering ourselves as these lowbrow foodies. I think the entire direction we’re trying to take is just being more approachable. So where Food Network was very unapproachable for me, bon app'etitwas very unapproachable for me because they’re using this language and this discourse that I didn’t get; I didn’t go to culinary school. And we’re not talking to the people that just went to culinary school on our site, we’re talking to my mom who fiddles around with English. I’m talking to my friend down the street that only plays video games. That dude still eats. bon app'etit would never cater to that person, they’d never watch Food Network. We just wanted a more approachable setting. That’s kind of the playing field that we’re putting ourselves in.
I guess in terms of fashion, I could compare this to designer labels now drawing inspiration from street wear brands rather than vice versa as it’s been in the past. Do you feel some sense of that going on in food?
Yeah, I love the example of Epic Meal Time. Epic Meal Time is these rag tag dudes who created ridiculously over the top snack foods. And they’re the most-watched culinary food channel on YouTube; above Food Network, above these million dollar companies. And now you’re seeing shows like that. Shows about snack food and more entry level food getting primetime TV coverage. There’s a show launching on MTV called Snackoff and it’s essentially a Chopped—a culinary competition show—but with snack foods. Hosted by people from hip-hop. Eddie Huang is the host, Jason Quinn, Chrissy Teigen who’s a sexy supermodel, she’s a host.
Food is finding its footing in pop culture more than it ever has. And it’s no thanks to bon app'etit, they’ve held it down and kept food in a media discourse for however long. [I] always give them praise for that. But it was these new kids on the block—not necessarily us, but people like Epic Meal Time. Dude Foods is a great shock pub[lication] where this guy every week has crazy culinary creation made from stuff in his kitchen that we’d understand; mac and cheese-filled corn dogs. I get that. And that’s shocking. It’s not necessarily the highest brow food to get into, but that was a way for food to show up on a news feed of someone who doesn’t interact with food every day. And I think that’s the most important thing that this generation has done because if you got introduced to cooking because you saw mac and cheese-filled corn dog on your news feed, you got into cooking somehow and you have a new appreciation for it. I’m using bon app'etit, and they’re a great pub, but I’m using them as an old school [example]. They’re still around and prevalent and very well-respected, we respect them whole-heartedly. Same with Food Network, they weren’t showing up on our news feed but the new BuzzFeed‘s of the world cover food the way we do too, and that’s keeping the discourse up and changing things, so that’s what’s really valuable.
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Speaking of these big networks, let’s wrap this up on a beefy note. What’s the deal with you guys and BuzzFeed?
Our beef with BuzzFeed is interesting. That hack series that I was telling you about—where we kind of got a little notoriety on YouTube. We created this hack series where we showed people a new way to eat something, or a curious way. So we showed people how to eat an apple properly, how to do all this. BuzzFeed actually approached us—they’re video department in LA—and was like, “Yo, could you guys let us know when you’re about to launch a video, because we’d love to help share it, promote it, it’s good for us, it’s good for you.” And we’re like, “Sure! You’re BuzzFeed, why not?” So the next video in our series was “How to Eat a Chicken Wing like a Lady.” So we did this video and we sent it to them. We launched it on our YouTube channel and it did really well, crossed a million plays. They didn’t put it on their site though, initially. What they did was they took our idea and created their own video. Did not link to us, did not hat tip us. So that’s the Internet beef that happened there.
They essentially blacklisted us from their site. They stopped promoting our shit to the front page because they were just taking cues from our ideas. And that happens a lot, it’s not just BuzzFeed, other people take cues from other people, we’ve done it, we take cues from the Reddit community, but we always pay respect and homage to them. That’s something that I hope, one day, BuzzFeed is able to answer to.