Features & Columns

Joey Hernandez: YouTube's
Fast Food King

How an average Joe became a YouTube phenomenon

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Joey Hernandez mugs for the GoPro. Photo by Greg Ramar

As of 2017, nearly half of the world's population is online. Current U.N. estimates put the number at 3.58 billion users. Of them, nearly a third, regularly tune into YouTube to watch or share videos. According to the company's official blog, a billion hours of video are streamed through the platform every day. That's hours, not minutes, and billion with a 'B.'

Every 60 seconds, users upload 300 hours of video to YouTube. By the end of day today, 432,000 hours of new footage will have become part of its archive.

In addition to home movies, music videos and promotional content, some of YouTube's massive daily upload is submitted by the site's stars, of whom some make millions of dollars a year from their channels. Some of the site's most popular users are Chilean comedian German Garmendia (HolaSoyGerman), Mexican beauty vlogger Yuya and dispassionate art persona Poppy.

But none is quite like Joseph Hernandez.

For the past four years, Joseph Hernandez has been using his channel Joey's World Tour to review nearly every promotional item the fast food industry has concocted. In that time, he's made more than 700 videos from the front seat of his 1996 Chevy Tahoe, all with little more than a point-and-shoot camera, a couple bucks and a parking spot. In the process, he has become one of the streaming services' most unlikely cult stars, amassing about 314,000 subscribers and more than 63 million individual views. And he didn't even get in the game until he was nearly 50 years old.

Despite his global following and the fact that the phrase "World Tour" appears in nearly every one of his videos, all of Hernandez's clips include places South Bay residents will recognize—the KFC on Bascom, the Wendy's on Union Avenue, the McDonald's on Stevens Creek.

That's because Joey's world is very much our own. Hernandez is from San Jose, and his story is one of the most preposterous—and true—San Jose stories out there.

JOEY IRL
Joseph Hernandez was born on April 22, 1964. That same day, the San Jose Mercury News ran a headline about another new addition to the city: "Macy's Adding Third Floor to Store at Valley Fair."

Valley Fair broke ground in San Jose in 1956 (the same year Carl's Jr. opened its first restaurant), but the '60s was the real time of transformation for the city.

Once primarily known for agriculture, a mix of IBM and defense contracts found San Jose quintupling its population between the years 1950 and 1970. The city's annual report for 1964 notes that in the span of one year the city grew by an astonishing 30 square miles. (By comparison, San Francisco is 47 square miles.) With its growth in both land mass and population came an increase in suburban commerce—shopping malls, convenience stores and fast food.

Like the city he was born into, Hernandez's life was in a constant state of flux throughout the '60s and '70s. Both his parents worked in electronics, manufacturing the small parts and pieces that became the building blocks of what is today known as Silicon Valley.

"Every two years we'd move," he recalls, saying his parents often had to relocate because of their jobs. "I was just trying to find my way in each place, meeting new people, but always thinking, what am I gonna do with my life?"

Hernandez spent his childhood in East San Jose, attended elementary school in San Diego, moved back to the East Side, then the South Side, then lived all around San Jose and the Bay Area afterward. By the time he was 18, he had attended four different high schools.

"I have a lot of different yearbooks," he says.

The first time Hernandez's life ever really approached anything like stability was when his father decided to get out of electronics altogether and open a restaurant. By then he had already become interested in cooking, but he had no idea how much the industry would come to shape his life.

In 1989, the Hernandezes opened the Burrito Factory on Almaden Expressway, in South San Jose. It quickly became an anchor in the family's life where previously there had been none. From the moment it opened until they day they sold the company, Joey and his family worked at the restaurant constantly, forgoing the near-nomadic lifestyle they had lived up until then. While they owned the company, Joey did everything from setting up the kitchen and designing the menu, to cooking, serving, working the cash register and occasionally running the books. When the '89 earthquake hit, he was in the kitchen, putting together a burrito for a customer.

In the early '90s, exhausted after taking it from a dream to a successful business, the Hernandezes sold the restaurant. Suddenly flush with cash, Joey seized the opportunity and moved back to San Diego, where he settled into an early retirement, relaxing by the ocean and watching the tide roll in.

Hernandez describes this entire period of his life—his San Diego years—as "just kicking it." He took a few classes at the local community college. For a few months he delivered flowers, making sure to work in La Jolla as often as possible. Beyond that, not much.

HE'S BAAACK
These days, Hernandez has seen just about everything a kitchen can throw at him. But when he returned to San Jose in 1997, he was still just a kid who had worked at the family restaurant. Soon after returning, he got a job at a friend's kitchen, Umunhum Food & Wine in South San Jose.

"It was almost like going to cooking school," Joey says.

While Hernandez was learning the ropes, the idea of "Silicon Valley" was becoming firmly entrenched. The internet arrived in millions of homes, and with it the dot-com bubble, which nearly crashed the stock market and shuttered hundreds of businesses overnight. Three miles from Umunhum Food & Wine, "Deep Blue" was unleashed from IBM's research campus, defeating chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. The same year, Steve Jobs returned to Apple, setting in motion the birth of smartphones, web 2.0 and all the changes they brought with them. All the while, Joey was cooking.

In 2011 Hernandez decided to share his love of food online. Using the Blogger site, he founded Sublime Flavor. There he reviewed restaurants, toured culinary academies, posted pictures and his shared own recipes.

"I was hoping to get my foot in the door, but it was really hard keeping up with the trends and stuff," he says of his years as a blogger. "It was just me and a little point-and-shoot camera. I wanted more out of it, but nothing was happening."

In 2012 a little recognition came his way when KPIX voted Sublime Flavor one of the best food blogs in the Bay Area. But like most things in his life, it was soon upended.

Hernandez (not a techie by any stretch of the imagination) says that one day he went to log in and Sublime Flavor was gone. He recalls someone asking for money in exchange for his site, though he doesn't remember who. Google had recently purchased the platform, but after trying to get in touch with them he never heard back.

Just like that, the little bit of stability he had built for himself was once again gone. And the same thing would happen again, almost immediately afterward.

"I was head chef at this café ," Hernandez says, "set it all up for this company—equipment, did menus, costumes, did my due diligence. Then they came in and said, 'We're going to go a different way with the café , and you're not involved anymore.'"

Once again, Joey found himself rudderless. With nothing better to do, he did what most bored people do: watch YouTube.

"I was unemployed," he says, simply. "I was just sitting there bored, watching YouTube videos, and I thought 'Well, I can do this.'"

CHALLENGING FATE
When Hernandez first began uploading, he barely knew how to work a computer, let alone editing software. Besides a year or two of glee club, decades in his past, he had never done any kind of public performance. He just took a step into a new world and felt out the lay of the land.

His earliest videos were food challenges. In his first, Hernandez went for the world record time for eating a plate of powdered doughnuts. He completed it in three and a half minutes, though it's unclear what the outstanding record was. In his next, he attempted to eat a jar of Nutella hands-free. Wearing Mickey Mouse ears stitched with the name "Joey," Hernandez gives his introduction, stares down the plate of Nutella, and goes for it.

By the end, Joey is covered in Nutella, gagging and bleary-eyed. It's at least a little hard to watch. But due to his complete and utter abandon, the video went certifiably viral, scoring more than a million views and appearing on an episode of Comedy Central's Tosh.0.

Perhaps in a moment of clarity, Joey changed up his channel after this video. The next few uploads after the Nutella Challenge are scattershot, and reflect his willingness to try things out on camera just to see what sticks. In one, he demonstrates how a water bottle can be used to separate egg yolk from the whites. In another, he reenacts Jerry Lewis' typewriter routine from the 1963 comedy Who's Minding the Store?

During that time, Hernandez knew that YouTube was his medium, but he hadn't figured out what it was he was trying to do with it. It was a friend's suggestion that set him on his present course.

"I was just waiting around to get another job, and my friend goes, 'You should do a food review,'" he says. "I thought, that kind of makes sense, you know?"

April 14, 2013. Inspired by a recent promotional menu item, Hernandez pulls up to the drive-thru of the combination KFC-Long John Silver's on Winchester and orders the new boneless chicken. Setting his camera up on the dash, he looks directly into the lens and condenses his years of work in kitchens, restaurants and food blogging into a five-minute video.

Many of the humorous tics that define Joey's style are present even in this first review. There's the batting of eyelashes, the arbitrary moments of falsetto, anime-inspired peace signs and his trademark lingo of "swings," "gang" and "muchachos." Throughout, Joey remains ebullient, smiling for the camera, and generally goofing around, dropping countless "woos!" Despite its simplicity, the review establishes a format: go to a drive-through, order whatever the new item is, park, joke around and record it all. There is very little in the way of editing.

The day after his first review, he posted a second: "PIZZA HUT's Crazy Cheesy Crust Pizza REVIEWED." The day after that, he posted his third. By the end of the following week, there were eight. Then he got one of his first big breaks.

"One of the big YouTubers, Daym Drops, he shouted me out," Hernandez says.

Daymon Patterson, aka Daym Drops, had risen to fame doing something similar to Joey: reviewing food from his car on YouTube. However, by 2013 he had already leveraged it to a bona fide TV show, the Travel Channel's Best Daym Takeout. The endorsement drove up Hernandez's numbers. Just a few months after he began reviewing, his channel had 5,000 subscribers.

"At first it was like a hobby. I was like, 'This is fun. Until I get a job, I'll just keep doing this.' And then I got a job but kept doing it."

Back at work, Joey started filming on his lunch break, killing two birds with one stone. He developed a schedule, uploading three videos a week, a schedule he still keeps to this day. While he worked, his numbers continued rising.

"I'd have little goals like, 'Oh, I'll shoot for 10,000 subscribers,' and then 'I'll shoot for 15,000,' and it kept going and going, and snowballed. Every day it keeps growing and growing."

WHAT WOULD JOEY DO?
In a way, Joey Hernandez is the embodiment of the American dream, or its 21st century equivalent. After a lifetime of instability and moving around, he now has a small corner of the internet that is entirely his. Not only that, it more than doubles his annual income. Hernandez says his channel now brings in more money than he makes at his full-time job at a luxury car dealership. He even recently upgraded his 1996 Chevy Tahoe to a 2017 Honda Civic.

Eric Schlosser, in Fast Food Nation, notes that America's fast food chains were often started by "door-to-door salesmen, short order cooks, orphans and dropouts, by eternal optimists looking for a piece of the next big thing." In this respect, his story shares a lot of the same DNA as Harlan "Colonel" Sanders, Wendy's Dave Thomas, or Domino's Thomas Monaghan: Hernandez has managed, somewhat late in life, to turn his spunk and determination into financial success.

But every occupation has its hazards.

In addition to putting up with YouTube's famously toxic comment section, Joey has gained 40 pounds since he started his channel in 2013. He says he's always been a big guy, and spread out over four years, that isn't quite as drastic as it initially sounds. But it's still a very real concern.

"I'm very aware that I need to watch what I'm doing," he says. "And I know for a fact that I can't do this forever, cause it's gonna eventually catch up to me."

Already, Hernandez has begun to adjust his habits.

"What you see on the camera right now, probably in the last year, that's all I'll ever eat of the thing. I'll just throw it out," he says.

More crucially, Hernandez is considering transitioning from fast food entirely—either finding different things to review, or moving into the world of gaming on sites like Twitch. It seems like a logical transition. The allure of Joey's World Tour was never entirely whatever Arby's put out on the market that week. The allure was Joey's humor, his phrasing, his comedy. Comedy, after all, was always his goal.

"I'm a frustrated comedian," he says. "Instead of going to the local comedy club, I do it on YouTube. I always wanted to be on Saturday Night Live."

Like the city he calls home, Joey has made a lot of money off technology, and has been commensurately changed by it. In all the talks we had, Joey was thankful for every last bit of his success. And with his videos passing enthusiastically from friend to friend and his channel gaining attention through word of mouth, his subscriber rate doesn't appear to be slowing.

It's Joey's world, muchachos. We're just living in it.

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