Last year, YouTube star Nikunj Lotia, with over 3.65 million followers on his Be YouNick site, took a plunge into unknown terrain. He met with a fellow Dombivli resident, a chef who was playing with the idea of starting an Indian food truck in the US, at a fan meeting in Los Angeles. “I’m passionate about Indian food, so much so that in any country I travel to, I never eat local food, and I decided to invest,” Lotia says.
Six days a week, dishing up Maharashtrian food, think vada pav, missal pav, chai and chaas, called the Feast India Company, the food truck parks at a designated spot in San Francisco. “It’s a big hit,” says Lotia, who, with two others, started the company. Although the sum he has spent will not be revealed, he says the investors have “all got our money back.” “It’s only a fraction of what I earn from YouTube, however,” he says.
There were plans to start two more vehicles, but a spanner was thrown in the works by the coronavirus outbreak. Every new truck will be set up overseas as well. If I get $10 for a vada pav, I’m not going to sell it [in India] for Rs10,” jokes Lotia, who studied hotel management and did a bartending course.”
A few houses in Mumbai’s posh Colaba district, his father’s business and a Dombivli farmhouse suggest that Lotia was born into a wealthy family. Nevertheless, circumstances forced them to sell the flats, shut down the store and settle in the far-flung suburb of Dombivli, about 55 km from Colaba. Lotia’s brother was unable to complete his schooling, while Lotia himself had to stand for six hours on several days outside his school classroom due to non-payment of fees.
At a cyber-café, as a bartender receiving Rs350 a day, and at a call centre, Lotia began doing strange work. By taking a loan, he sought higher education on the side.
Initially, while still working at the call centre, Lotia started a channel called ‘Not So Funny’ on YouTube. But it soon became like her name,” he says, self-deprecatingly.” He started Be YouNick six years ago and steadily tasted success.
He chose to concentrate full-time on content generation at 25. Three months in, though, he drained all of his money, borrowed from a neighbour, and spent that as well. Fed up, he had another job interview, and he got an offer. One of his videos went viral the same day. His parody of the ‘Mauka Mauka’ 2015 World Cup commercial reached over 3 million views on YouTube shortly afterwards. Fleeting glory was welcome, but the jackpot hadn’t hit him.
Lotia, who was “almost famous” on YouTube, realised two years later that he wasn’t making enough money. So, back to bartending, he went. It was funny because people came and asked me to click on pictures of them at the parties and I would say, ‘Ok, but how much ice do you need to drink? ‘,’ laughs he.
He gained from branding on YouTube three months after that, and since then he hasn’t had to look back. Apart from four-time Indian Premier League (IPL) champions, Mumbai Indians, and international social media stars Adam W and Montana Tucker, he has now partnered with A-list stars such as Ayushmann Khurrana, Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan and Rajkummar Rao.
While Lotia does not like to plan, he now aims to build a market in Hollywood for himself. “Los Angeles is the creators’ mecca. There, I want people to remember me,’ he says.