The $9.25 cheesesteak from John’s Roast Pork in South Philly. Is it worth it?
How about the $14 “local mushroom cheesesteak” from Gin & Pop in Francisville?
Or the cheesesteak from Barclay Prime on Rittenhouse Square. Is that worth $120, given that it’s made with A5 Wagyu beef and served with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne?
We’ll leave these decisions up to Steven Lim, Andrew Ilnyckyj, and Adam Bianchi, stars of the BuzzFeed viral-video series Worth It. The three visited Philadelphia this month while shooting the fourth season of the food travelogue. (See completed video below.)
Moving light with iPhones and GoPros, they zero in on food — be it ramen, steak, burgers, or bacon — tasting and comparing cheaper, medium-price, and expensive versions.
They did the Philadelphia episode in about a day and a half, staying overnight at an Airbnb in a South Philadelphia rowhouse and using Uber to get to the restaurants. Philadelphia-raised BuzzFeed star Quinta Brunson joined them for local flavor.
At Barclay Prime, they shot in the quiet of the morning with chef Mark Twersky and manager Tom Austin. At John’s and Gin & Pop, they worked around the crowds.
Which has the best taste for the best price? they muse for Bianchi’s camera.
The slick, fast-paced episodes are monstrously successful on YouTube and Facebook, where the first three seasons have racked up more than 511 million views. BuzzFeed gets a cut of the Google and Facebook ad revenue.
The Philadelphia episode is due to premiere in late May.
Lim, now 27, was an Ohio-raised chemical engineer working for Procter & Gamble on Tide Pods when “I just kind of realized that soap wasn’t going to be my calling in life. I left and started making videos on my iPhone in the hotel room where I’d be traveling for work.”
BuzzFeed noticed a video Lim produced, a touching piece about Asian parents’ reacting to their children calling to say they love them, and offered him a fellowship to develop programming.
Meanwhile, Ilnyckyj, now 27, was producing at BuzzFeed. Bianchi, 26, was there, too, developing the fast-paced video recipe format that became Tasty.
“I was curious about foods that had high price points,” Lim said. “In particular, I was really curious about sushi. There are these really decadent, high-price sushi meals called omakase, where the chef will give you each piece of cut that they select in the morning. I wanted to see if that was any better or actually worth the money, compared to going to the local grocery store and trying sushi or trying your middle-priced sushi. I just thought, ‘If I’m curious, then maybe a lot of other people are curious.’ That’s when I just realized that maybe I could try making a video.”
The video, Lim said, took off with 10 million views in a week.
“I was like, ‘OK. Why not try again?’ So we tried again with burgers,” Lim said. “That did very well. And then we tried again with pizza, and then we realized at that point it was a show. It was something that people really craved. … When we made nine episodes, we were like, ‘OK. This seems real.’ And then they are like, ‘Let’s try to make another season. Let’s add a little bit more resources. Let’s have you and Adam stop editing until 4 a.m.’ ”
Why are people tuning in? “I think there are a lot of things going on here,” Ilnyckyj said. “There’s obviously the curiosity and expensive foods. I think that’s what people were drawn to initially. I also think that we have a really great format — we’re light and flexible enough where we don’t have to do things that have occurred traditionally on travel and food shows in the past. You’ll never see us knocking on a door of restaurant and walking in and that sort of thing. We can kind of do whatever we want, and I think we’re really good at all the component parts. We used to make videos where people would just taste things on camera. We got really good at filming food in a logical way, were you can understand the recipe and learn a lot from the chef in the process, and not just see nameless buckets going into things. And we got really good at that with tasting. So now we have this show that’s assembled from all these other formats that we’ve really honed and I think it’s just a great result.”
More telling, Lim said, “I think the spirit of the show is that really that we are three people who don’t have culinary backgrounds. We’re three normal, relatable people who eat food in a way that you would eat with your friends at your dining table or when you go out to eat. And so we don’t try to criticize them — we just want to enjoy it and take it as it is. We just try to find the positives and the joy eating with each other.”
Ilnyckyj says they look at it “as if we’re the viewers’ friends and they’re coming along on this journey so that they could easily imprint the situation on their own lives.”
From his pre-Worth It videos, Ilnyckyj says he’d get recognized by young teens, the backbone of BuzzFeed’s demographics. “Since starting the show, I’ve been recognized a lot more and by, on average, an older audience,” he said. “Which is, personally, very rewarding. I’ll be stopped by dads at restaurants instead of the kids and they’ll start talking to me about the food, which is really great.”
“It’s surprised me the number of times parents have stopped us and said they’re watching our content with their kids,” Bianchi said. “You know they talk about how great it is to be able to go to these restaurants and eat with their kids, when there’s not as much they can do together nowadays.”
“Yeah,” Lim said. “I was eating dinner a few nights ago, and as soon as I finished, this lady got up and came to me and she’s like, ‘Just wanted to let you know: I don’t want to bother you but I’m a teacher for kids with mental-health issues and we play your show for some of the kids when they get really anxious or really sad because it’s just such a great, positive energy around it and it just really helps them to focus and center themselves.” At that point I was like, ‘Wow.’ It’s tough to do the show but that moment in itself made the whole doing the show worthwhile.”