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Originally published Sunday, July 27, 2014 at 9:30 PM

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Cake in a coffee mug? It’s fueling a YouTube cooking channel

Created in 2010 by four Britons, Sorted Food has quickly attracted more than 865,000 subscribers.


The New York Times

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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 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.

“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 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 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 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.

“Networked culture allows for little pockets of fascination to bubble up, and YouTube allows us to marvel at the skills of others,” said Joshua Green, a media scholar and co-author of “YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture.” “And food is one of those things that are very human to be curious about.”

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, whose signature finishing touch on many dishes is a sprig of fresh mint.

Ebbrell, 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,” Spafford said, “we were all eating complete rubbish. With one exception: Ben.”

So 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,” 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.”

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?

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.”

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. Intended to mimic social networks like Facebook, 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, 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,” Spafford said. “It’s about the personal food journey that you can share with others.”



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