Eight years ago, Harley Morenstein's career took a wild swerve when he went from teaching high school history to teaching millions of YouTube viewers what happens when you make a 50-pound grilled cheese sandwich or a 1 million-calorie lasagna.
Not only that, Morenstein's food-centric streaming video empire is now pulling in millions of dollars each year.
Morenstein, 33, is the star and co-creator of Epic Meal Time, the weekly updated YouTube channel with over 7 million followers who click on videos of Morenstein and his friends tackling "epic" food challenges — many of which include cooking and eating meals with enough fat, calories and bacon to make even the biggest junk food junkie do a double-take.
One video, for example, features the "Frankenpig," a bacon-wrapped, spaghetti-stuffed turkey that will haunt your arteries. And that lasagna? It was made from 100 pounds of pork, 120 packages of bacon and eight wheels of brie.
"On paper it sounds completely ridiculous — I guess it is completely ridiculous," Morenstein tells CNBC Make It, adding that they're really just a group of guys, who aren't trained cooks, making "the most ridiculous foods that ... you never thought would exist."
"We know that a lot of people really care about their health and their diets," he says. "So we create these awesome, fun meals so that people can live vicariously through us."
With his band of merry food pranksters, Morenstein is building a mini-empire, one that has already spawned a spin-off cable television series and now, a line of food products — from his brand Super Snack Time — ranging from pizza-flavored pepperoni jerky to cheesy bacon biscuit mix.
Between Epic Meal Time's advertising revenue from YouTube and Facebook, along with its other business ventures, including Super Snack Time and other branded merchandise, Morenstein says the business pulls in millions of dollars per year. In fact, Super Snack Time, which just launched in March 2018, has already sold more than $5 million worth of products, the company told CNBC Make It.
In 2010, Morenstein was 25 and working as a substitute high school history teacher in Montreal, Canada, making about $28,000, Canadian, or about $21,000 USD per year. He also spent his spare time messing around with a video camera and picking up small gigs as a videographer.
"I was going and filming weddings, music videos and stuff like that," Morenstein tells CNBC Make It.
Morenstein harbored dreams of performing on camera, having gone to the occasional acting audition around Montreal, only to be told that his six-foot-six-inch, burly frame was best suited to play "a gigantic mutant," he jokes. At the same time, Morenstein and his friends were watching a lot of amateur videos on YouTube where people like them were racking up millions of views doing everything from comedy skits to instructional videos.
"I was kind of, like, 'I'm going to make my own show.... I saw YouTube as a means to do that," he tells CNBC Make It.
Morenstein brainstormed content ideas, including comedy skits. But it wasn't until one night in the summer of 2010, when he was hanging out drinking with a group of hungry friends, that Morenstein finally stumbled on the formula that became YouTube gold.
"We came up with the idea of putting a bunch of fast food items on a pizza, and how silly that would be," he says. "It probably sounds really simple now, but somehow, in 2010, that was mind blowing to a lot of people — at least, 120,000 people. That's how many views the first video got."
Epic Meal Time kicked off its weird internet food party on July 9, 2010, when Morenstein and friend Alex Perrault decided to follow through on the idea from the night before, to create "a pizza more disgusting than we ever thought possible in an attempt to take their taste buds on an incredible journey," according to the text displayed at the start of the video.
The aptly titled "Fast Food Pizza" video shows Morenstein and Perrault traveling from Taco Bell to McDonald's to Wendy's and a handful of other fast food restaurants to compile French fries, onion rings, chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers and a Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme, which they then put on a pre-made pizza. After topping it all off with a fresh layer of shredded cheese, Morenstein pops the monstrosity into an oven for 12 minutes and then he and Perrault dig in.
"Sometimes people come up with a goofy idea and they wake up the next day they're like, 'What were we thinking last night?' We woke up more like, 'Let's do it!'" Morenstein tells CNBC Make It eight years later.
After filming the fast food pizza stunt, Morenstein wasn't entirely sure it would make for a popular YouTube video, but he edited the footage himself and eventually threw it online that October. The video got over 120,000 views within days and it's currently been viewed more than 5.7 million times.
After the initial video's success, Morenstein and his friends decided to give it another shot. The result was two more minutes of Morenstein and friends making and eating the 5,000-calorie "greasiest sandwich in Canada," made from a 20-inch, french-toasted baguette filled with maple syrup, bacon, poutine (French fries with cheese curds and gravy) and hot dogs, which they dubbed "The Angry French Canadian."
The second video got about 600,000 views shortly after it posted and it's accumulated more than 6.2 million views over the past eight years.
By this point, two things had become pretty clear to Morenstein: People wanted to see grossly excessive culinary concoctions on the internet, and his new hobby probably wasn't going to go over well at work.
"I went and I taught [high school] one more time and then decided that it would be best to not go there," Morenstein says. "A couple of the students had seen [the first video] and I was like, 'I think I'm losing control of the kids, while simultaneously trying to put bacon on everything.'"
Morenstein dedicated himself to Epic Meal Time full-time and committed to a strict posting schedule.
"Every single Tuesday since , we have been dropping a brand new Epic Meal Time," Morenstein says. "We always have that Tuesday video — I haven't missed one yet."
Eight years later, and Morenstein's Epic Meal Time crew has posted more than 450 videos, and fans have viewed those videos — from baking a 250-pound Oreo to a 60,000-calorie "All Bacon Burger" (which is exactly what it sounds like) — more than a billion times in total on YouTube.
"I like doing it. If it did not pop right away, I would still be doing it," Morenstein tells CNBC Make It. "But the fact that it popped right away is just a fortunate thing because the first video took off and we ran with it."
Epic Meal Time has also posted more than 360 videos to the show's Facebook page, which has over 1.75 million Facebook followers. Those videos also have anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of Facebook views, including one of a "Big Mac and Cheese" that pulled in 12 million views in October.
Celebrities like chef Jamie Oliver, Seth Rogen, pro skateboarder Tony Hawk and Arnold Schwarzenegger have made cameo appearance on Epic Meal Time over the past eight years.
Epic Meal Time started selling merchandise online in 2011, including everything from bacon-themed apparel to cookbooks and a $100 Epic Meal Time cooking kit featuring pots, pans and branded cooking knives. The company made "seven figures" from merchandising products the first year they took that approach, Morenstein says, adding that a deal with the retailer Hot Topic even put Epic Meal Time products in over 600 malls across the US in 2011.
Morenstein launched the Super Snack Time line of food products in early 2018 with its flagship product, Pizza In A Bag, which is pepperoni jerky that comes in various pizza-inspired flavors. It caught the eye of Walmart, which agreed to exclusively sell Pizza In A Bag in all of its 4,751 stores nationwide. Later in 2018, he added more food products, like flavored biscuit mixes and microwavable macaroni and cheese.
Merchandising still produces a large chunk of Epic Meal Time's revenue, though advertising revenue from the videos themselves on YouTube and Facebook still results in "five figures" from the videos each month, Morenstein says.
"You know, I put burgers on a pizza, fast forward three years [and] dealing with millions of dollars was really kind of a lot. It was a big change," he tells CNBC Make It.
Another big change? Eating meals with six- or seven-figure calorie counts every week is an exercise in gluttony, so unsurprisingly, Morenstein found himself gaining weight, getting up to around 287 pounds at one point. But in recent years, he's adopted a ketogenic diet that's low in carbs, and he's working out more, which allowed him to drop more than 40 pounds.
As to why Epic Meal Time is so popular, Morenstein says when the series launched in 2010, food culture was becoming more intimidating: "We were hearing about new stuff like kale at the time and then we just had some regular goofballs come through all like, 'We put burgers on a pizza!'"
In fact, Morenstein's advice to anyone looking to find their own online success is to be genuine: "You gotta love what you're doing. If you don't love it, it's not going to work out."
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