Dylan Lemay had worked at Cold Stone Creamery for eight years before he started posting on TikTok in early 2020, motivated by a friend’s goal of becoming “TikTok famous.” Through POV-style videos of himself decorating ice cream cakes and tossing balls of ice cream into the air, he became the platform’s top food and beverage creator by the end of 2021.
Lemay, who has 11.2 million TikTok followers and 4.1 million YouTube subscribers, took his work to the next level this year. The 26-year-old opened New York City’s Catch’n Ice Cream in July, enabled in part by over $1.5 million in venture funding. There, he and his employees throw baseball-sized rounds of ice cream into customers’ cups; a score flipper behind the counter keeps track of the number of catches — and drops — per day. In a nod to Lemay’s roots, the ice cream is then smashed together on a cold surface, turning the hard-shell coating around each ball into mix-ins.
For Lemay, who says he’s “always been the ice cream guy,” the shop is a lifelong dream come true, just hastened by his online success. “My trajectory was already to do this beforehand,” Lemay says. “It’s just that now, I get to do it at a crazier level because of my audience.”
Lemay’s opening isn’t a one-off. In 2022, some of the year’s buzziest new food businesses came not from TV chefs or even conventional celebrities, but from the juggernauts of the creator economy: video stars whose names might not be recognizable to more-offline demographics, but who have wrangled as many followers as there are residents of New York City, if not mind-bogglingly more.
While not an opening exactly, the established New York City frozen yogurt chain 16 Handles got a leadership refresh in August, when it was sold to a group that included the YouTuber Danny Duncan (6.86 million subscribers). Weeks later, an estimated 10,000 people gathered at the American Dream mall in New Jersey — even lining up the night before, according to Buzzfeed — to try a burger from MrBeast, a stunt-focused YouTuber with 114 million subscribers. That physical location was the logical progression of the YouTuber’s existing delivery-only “ghost franchise” line. As the New York Times reported, this model lends his name and branding to restaurants in exchange for a cut of the sales.
Months later, the embattled YouTuber David Dobrik (28.1 million subscribers across three channels) opened Doughbrik’s Pizza in Los Angeles, to a clamoring crowd. “By the time Doughbrik’s had sold its inaugural slice, the line of eager customers spilled over multiple city blocks, snaking into the Hollywood Hills and disrupting traffic,” reported NBC. And it certainly isn’t new for popular online creators to venture into offline food projects. The YouTube chef Sam Zien, known as Sam the Cooking Guy (3.44 million subscribers), got into the restaurant game in San Diego beginning in 2018, and in Los Angeles, a restaurant from vegan influencer Tabitha Brown (4.2 million Instagram followers) is currently in the works.
But it’s worth noting that unlike Lemay, Zien, and Brown, neither Duncan, Dobrik, nor MrBeast necessarily focuses on making food content; nor does YouTuber Anwar Jibawi (8.48 million), who opened the first location of his Anwar’s Kitchen in Los Angeles in 2020 and then a second in July of this year. All of this speaks to what researchers have called “influencer celebritification” — basically, proof that the creator economy is becoming as formidable in terms of sociocultural currency as more traditional forms of celebrity.
Pointing to products like YouTuber Emma Chamberlain’s Chamberlain Coffee (launched in 2020), the trend analyst Andrea Hernández has identified a shift in the consumer packaged goods space that she calls “creator packaged goods.” “Whether amassing audiences that span millions, or opting for niche, creator economy describes the leveling of the playing field when it comes to creating a ‘brand’ that holds the potential of being developed into multi-million if not billion dollar powerhouses in the same way CPG giants have been able to,” Hernández writes. She notes, of course, that not everyone has what it takes to transcend beyond their digital platforms.” But clearly, those who can, are.
For those granted the opportunity to stick their name onto a fun food concept, the appeal seems obvious. The results, as former Eater editor Madeleine Davies wrote about celebrity-owned restaurants, are basically win-win: “exposure and to give their fans conditional access to their personalities through the dining experience.” To that end, the pull of MrBeast Burger isn’t the burger, as Buzzfeed’s Kelsey Weekman pointed out. (She deemed it “pretty bad.”)
Instead, Weekman’s reporting from the location’s opening day mentions a child who likes MrBeast “because he’s rich” and other fans who showed up at the opening because they appreciate the YouTuber’s philanthropic work. It’s definitely not just the pizza either, for which one person claims to have waited six hours in line at Doughbrik’s, according to an Instagram comment. Another comment on the same post reads: “having ate there is a flex. let alone the fact that it’s a top contender for the best pizza i’ve ever had.” Apart from being close to your favorite online star, there is a sense of being in on a viral moment by going to the creator-owned establishment; the MrBeast Burger opening was reportedly world-record-breaking. It’s also an opportunity that fans can leverage into their own buzzy content: From the Doughbrik’s opening came YouTube videos like “How I Got BANNED From David Dobrik’s Pizza Shop !” and “I Was Worlds First David Dobriks Pizza Customer.”
This idea of taking the online experience offline plays out literally at Catch’n, where Lemay offers 30-minute “behind the counter” classes in which people can throw, catch, and chop their own ice cream balls. Participants might film this experience for their own purposes, and so might Lemay. “It’s one thing that makes having the shop so beneficial: Not only do they get to engage in my content by eating the ice cream, they actually get to live like, making a video,” he says.
Marylu Herrera is a Chicago-based artist with a focus on print media and collage.