Here’s How Delish Makes their Crazy Theme Park Videos
A year ago they were reuploading minute-long recipe videos. Today, they’re producing longform content for YouTube — and have become celebrities
Tess Koman was travelling back from Jersey at the end of the holiday season when someone took a photo on the train. “I looked like a dumpster,” she says. “I was not cute.” But it’s something that happens increasingly often — alongside being greeted by strangers with a cry of “You’re Disney Tess!”. It even happens in Delish’s office building, which they share with other Hearst publications in New York. “It’s been very pervasive in a way that is both fun and terrifying.”
Koman is senior editor at Delish.com, the food publication from the publishers of magazines including Esquire. But she’s also the host of YouTube series Iconic Eats, whose journeys through the theme parks of America are seen by millions of people at a time. Becoming a public figure — a digital celebrity — wasn’t something Koman thought would happen when she joined Delish. “The short answer is no, I didn’t think this was going to happen, and yes, it’s very weird that it did.”
Life in front of the camera has had odd impacts on Koman’s life: “My actual friends have stopped engaging on any of my channels because internet people are taking over,” she says. And she spends far more time in Florida than anyone under the age of 10, or over the age of 65, ought to.
But Koman’s working life — and that of colleague Julia Smith, who as well as starring in Delish YouTube series Julia Eats Everything also oversees video strategy for the title — isn’t all glamor and Mickey-shaped cookies. “It does become a source of frustration for both of us when people are like: ‘I want your job’,” she says. “Ninety percent of the time I’m staring at Google Analytics in a disgusting New York City office. It’s really only 10% of the time that I’m in Florida or elsewhere, eating my way through the park — which is very much work.”
The unspoken rule at Delish is that Koman and senior video producer Chelsea Lupkin don’t return to New York from Florida — to where they travel roughly once a month — unless they have two or three episodes in the can. “And it’s not just two episodes,” says Smith. “There’s about eight extra one-off videos featuring cool restaurants or different menu items and those videos have they have a really great life of their own, they perform really well on Facebook, on site and Instagram.”
The on-camera talent deliberately limits their videos to two or three a month because of the punishing schedule. Eating your way through a theme park or a chain restaurant’s menu is challenging. “It’s destructive, what we’re doing to our bodies, and so in order to calibrate we are eating other stuff most of the time,” says Koman, who often survives on Ina Garten’s mustard-roasted salmon and buttered string beans.
It’s a long way from the start of Delish’s YouTube channel. When Smith was first looking at how to land on the world’s biggest video sharing website, she faced the challenge of how to develop the brand that had largely taken over Facebook and Instagram. She first looked to Delish’s web analytics. “We were trying to figure out how do we present Delish to the YouTube audience,” says Smith. “And for us that was we take people out into the world.”
Text stories on Disney content and fast food did well for Delish — so they decided to use those as the basis for YouTube videos, and for Koman and Smith’s two series. Koman’s theme park-based series started as her producing extra content on a visit to Disney for the website. “It was not planned whatsoever, but kind of just testing things,” says Smith. “Most of our ideas have been beautiful, happy accidents, very happy accidents. Same with my show, it wasn’t meant to be a show to begin with. But people loved it so much on Facebook and YouTube and on-site it worked out really well.”
But it took a while for Delish to get YouTube properly. “Just a year ago, we were still posting recipe videos on YouTube and like bulk uploading one-minute videos, which is just not what you’re supposed to be doing,” says Smith. The team didn’t have anyone dedicated to the platform, with video editors uploading recipe videos that had done well on other platforms to YouTube as an add-on. Now, that’s totally flipped: with nearly half a million subscribers, six million views a month, and a 415% increase in watch time between 2018 and 2019, Smith’s job has shifted to become video-focused. Koman knows — she sits mostly behind Smith’s desk.
“We have a whole wall dedicated to our production schedule for the rest of 2020 now, and we’re focused on how things are going to perform specifically on that channel whereas like a year ago it was not on anybody’s radar,” she says.
Smith finds that Delish’s YouTube audience is younger, more engaged and more conversational than its audience elsewhere. “Our YouTube audience is like extremely smart and intuitive. And they catch any errors possible on our videos there,” she explains. “And they know what they want and they’re very vocal in what they want, which we listen to. “But they’re also just more engaged in the sense that they’re willing to sit there and watch like a 20 minute video whereas on Facebook it’s a little bit faster paced. People are sharing a story really quickly. They’re not necessarily watching a video to completion the same way that they are on YouTube.” Koman points out that if she makes an OK, boomer joke in a video, it would fly over the head of the Delish Facebook audience while it would stoke a huge conversation in the YouTube comment section.
A whiteboard in the Delish office holds the production’s plans for 2020 on YouTube. “We know where we want to take Tess next,” says Smith. “We want to know what season three and season four, and different iterations of her show would look like, and same for mine.” They find it easier now to get into theme parks than they did when they first started, thanks to the success of the videos. “It’s really nice when we don’t have to beg people. We don’t have to necessarily beg to have a theme park say yes to Tess. They’re delighted. They know who she is already. So they’re like, ‘Of course, come in’.”
Other additions to the Delish YouTube roster include Khidr Joseph, who is spending $100 at fast food restaurants in a new series. 2021 is coming round the corner shortly. “We’re really excited to show different people and more people — more talent this year, and we’re very big on them being home-grown, in-office talent,” says Smith. “Everyone who’s like on our camera right now you’re seeing on YouTube they have a real job. They’re our recipe editor, our test kitchen manager, our senior editor.”
But success comes with challenges. “Now that we’ve become more developed, the bar just keeps getting set higher,” says Koman. “Before I felt like we can kind of throw whatever we wanted on YouTube and no one would notice hopefully.”