How childhood friendships led to a career making funny videos about big food
YouTube personality Bongo Bicher shares his roundabout route back to YouTube and hometown Ottawa
CBC Ottawa asked people who make a living talking to the camera to share what it's like to be YouTube famous, in our series My YouTube Life.
Hassan (Bongo) Bicher never thought he'd be back in his hometown of Ottawa.
The YouTube personality, who's known for his big-food videos, took a break from his channel to help kickstart his childhood friend and fellow YouTuber Wolfie's music career in Los Angeles. But then, the pandemic forced them to return home.
"I was back where I started, in the one place I didn't want to be," says Bicher, 29. He added he has since happily pivoted his career in a new direction.
Early days with the boys
YouTubing has been part of Bicher's social life since Grade 8, when he started making videos with his friends at Alta Vista's St. Patrick's High School.
In fact, his nickname Bongo references a yellow T-shirt with the name he wore back then. It stuck, and became his YouTube persona.
Daniel (DJ) Haye, David Charlie, Dustin Wilson, Charles Raynor (aka Wolfie), DavidParody, Sean Callaghan and Jad Slaibeh (aka ChadWithaJ) each found success on their individual channels, most eventually making a living off the advertising revenue.
Several lived together during their university years, teaming up for prank videos, challenges and skits for their growing YouTube audiences.The group dubbed themselves Team Alboe — an acronym for "a little bit of everything" — and have now collectively accumulated millions of subscribers.
"When David's first video ["Parody"] got like 25,000 views, we thought, 'You just filled up an arena,'" says Bicher, thinking back to the early days.
"We were happy for each other. We were all in it together."
It only made sense that Bongo would ask his friends to appear in his first effort, a prank video involving meat pies with surprise hot sauce back in 2016.
"I wanted it to be funny and involve the guys," laughed Bicher about the first video he uploaded to his Bongigglez channel.
It did well, garnering over 200,000 views, so he started making more, setting a time limit of six months on the experiment. If he didn't get enough hits, he'd quit and return to his career in software engineering.
"I made zero money for like five months," he says.
But in the sixth, his luck changed and he earned $5,000 in advertisements. From then on in, he was a full-time YouTuber, making a living off videos about food.
His trademark is making giant versions of common snacks like candy corn or Oreos, and eating them in surprising places. In one video, he orders all the items off the KFC menu and challenges himself to eat them all before the clock runs out. In others, he shares family dishes from his Lebanese roots.
Bongo burns out
But after four years of YouTubing and 600 videos, Bicher says, he felt burnt out.
"I felt like I was forcing myself to look happy on the camera. I didn't want people to feel sad when they watched me," he says, adding he felt a change of scenery would help.
He spent a year with Wolfie in Los Angeles before the pandemic hit and they made a quick return home.
"It was an emotional roller-coaster. I didn't know what I wanted to do," says Bongo, who found himself living in his mother's basement, realizing he'd lost much of his YouTube following because he hadn't been posting regularly in California.
In July 2020, he connected with chef Yousef Ghadban. The two had worked on food videos together, and decided to pivot from videos to a physical restaurant.
"Besides the weather, what I miss about L.A. the most is the food. Some of my favourite places were salad joints," says Bongo, who opened Super Salads — a restaurant specializing in L.A.-style salads — in summer 2020.
In the months leading up to the grand opening, he started feeling like himself again.
"I actually wanted to pick up the camera again," says Bicher, who has since posted videos about his personal life and, of course, giant food.
The restaurant's early days didn't go as planned. Camera footage caught a man attempting to burn the restaurant down.
It could have been another setback, but instead, Bicher and Ghadban saw an outpouring of support from the community, allowing them to reopen within a week.
Despite the twists and turns, and the added challenges of running a restaurant in a pandemic, Bicher says he's happy to now find himself behind the counter.
"I am excited to wake up every day, and this is where I want to be."