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Sides: YouTube stars The Sidemen talk fried chicken — and plans for world domination

Side hustle: The collective have plans to expand their fried chicken business into the US, Middle East and India within the next 12 months (ES composite)
Side hustle: The collective have plans to expand their fried chicken business into the US, Middle East and India within the next 12 months (ES composite)

What’s the next move when you’ve got more YouTube subscribers than Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift combined? As it turns out, two things: open a chicken shop — and aim for world domination.

That, at least, seems to be the plan for the Sidemen, a YouTube collective of seven mates who have picked up 130-or-so million subscribers between them since forming nine years ago. Their videos, which see them try everything from Tinder in real life to games of hide-and-seek in a prison, have racked up more than 33 billion views. They are, then, a popular lot, and hoping that their enormous online success is going to sell fried chicken across the planet. Why?

“Honestly? With us being YouTubers, there’s arguably a time when we have an expiry date,” says Josh Bradley, who makes up the group, alongside Olajide Olatunji, Simon Minter, Tobit Brown, Ethan Payne, Vikram Barn and Harry Lewis. “So we thought it’s good to have different products and projects that can outlive us.”

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And so Sides was born. Launched late last year as a delivery brand, Sides offers chicken burgers and wings — including vegan counterparts — as well as salads, sides and a choice of seven sauces. While it’s hardly revolutionary, it’s proved to be a resounding hit, and the franchise has swiftly rocketed, with 80 dark kitchens across the UK plating up their dishes and another 20 in the UAE doing the same thing (the Sidemen have made videos there for years). Now things are about to get physical: following the original (and only) BOXPARK Wembley restaurant — which drew three-hour queues on its debut day — the group is now launching a second spot at the end of this month, in the perennially popular BOXPARK Croydon. If Croydon seems an inauspicious spot from which to launch a globe-trotting campaign, their ambitions are anything but: “We’ve got expansion plans for the US, Middle East and India in the next 12 months, which is pretty exciting,” explains Barn. “We get messages from fans like, ‘when is Sides coming here? Hey, I’m in Norway! I’m in Sweden!’ They all want to be part of the story.”

And the Sidemen want to include them. To start, there are another 15 kitchens set to deliver in the UK — including three more in London and others in the likes of Newcastle, Bolton and Bristol — while 200 more across the UAE, the US and India will follow suit. It’s set to be an astonishing break into food from a group whose eldest member, Bradley, only turned 30 three days ago. Are they worried it’s going to be a case of too much, too soon? “Nah,” smiles Payne. “I don’t think things move too quickly because we’ve got seven brains on everything.”

Taste of success:  Sides has proved to be a resounding hit in the UK after launching in 2021 (Handout)
Taste of success: Sides has proved to be a resounding hit in the UK after launching in 2021 (Handout)

It does seem a case of lucky number seven for these boys, if only because, as Bradley says, “there’s never a stalemate.” Barn — who seems to be the most business-minded of the group — adds that they “effectively act as a board, and we have several meetings a week. We vote on everything that’s an important decision.” He points to the Sidemen’s other projects, which include a clothing line, a vodka and membership club Side+, as an example of how they’re turning YouTube eyeballs into business.

Still, despite there clearly being steely-eyed determination behind the scenes, they don’t appear to be corporate sharks dressed up as gamers-done-good. To chat to, there is the sense that there’s little distinction between who they are on and off the camera. To boot, they admit that their plans begin with puns.

“That’s how this all started, we had plays on our names that could be businesses,” grins Payne. What, really? “Yeah, we had some ideas — some terrible, some good — but they all tend to start with, how can we work around the word ‘side’?” Bradley elaborates cheerfully. “We’ve had Sidekick — they were going to be trainers...” Payne interrupts: “And Inside, that was for hotels...”

I don’t think things move too quickly because we’ve got seven brains on everything

The question, then, is why food and drink? “They’re universal, food and drink speak every language,” says Payne, and then pauses. “Well, alcohol definitely speaks every language — !”

They do, at least, seem genuinely enthused by their own product, even if the tasting sessions sound more arduous than appetising. “Me and JJ [Olatunji] have definitely ended up in food comas more than once,” laughs Payne. “Mate, those tasting sessions...” He shakes his head in disbelief at the memory. Bradley chips in: “Honestly, it was so much chicken. SO much.” He and Minter are fussiest, according to Barn, while “I’m the one it all tastes good to. I’m going: I like it all!”

So what’s good? The group’s favourite seems to be the naked chicken — tenders served without a bun. “I’m a big naked fan,” says Payne, with a flashing grin. The best of the sauces, they agree, is the chipotle, though there’s a shout-out for the teriyaki and buffalo options (others include vegan garlic mayo, both Korean and classic barbecue dips, and a spicy ‘Louisiana’ option).

None of the boys claim it’s the chicken or sauces that set them apart. “I think, for us, our aim is just to make good tasting food widely available for people who are invested in us,” says Barn, matter-of-factly. “You can go to other chains but at the end of the day, you don’t know who’s behind that brand or that chain or delivery. What we’re saying is: look, you can tweet us, you can message us, you can leave comments and we can move things in a direction in a way that suits our audience. Other places can’t really do that.”

“We’re as hands-on as we can be,” adds Bradley. “We can pass [the feedback] on immediately, or we’ll go in and see if what people are saying is true.”

Brain power: The seven-strong group all vote individually on big business decisions (Handout)
Brain power: The seven-strong group all vote individually on big business decisions (Handout)

Bit on the side

The Youtubers’ top London spots

Powerleague Shoreditch

Grab your own sidemen and head east to these five-a-side pitches.

Braithwaite St, E1, powerleague.co.uk

Sunset Bar

This tiny bar with speakeasy vibes does its house cocktail for £8.50, which feels like a bargain.

149 Curtain Rd, EC2, sunsetbar-london.co.uk

The Roxy

Is it a bar? Is it a club? It’s both, actually. Bottles of beer are two-for-one before 8.30pm.

3-5 Rathbone Pl, W1, theroxy.co.uk

Dishoom

This reliable Indian never fails and is a favourite of Josh. Ethan’s go-to is the ruby murray.

Across London, dishoom.com

Hawksmoor

Seriously good steak, but check out the bars too. Always first rate.

Across London, thehawksmoor.com

Swingers

Crazy-golf venues with cocktails as good as the courses.

West End and the City, swingers.club

Sticks N Sushi

Danish chain does what it says on the tin: sushi and yakitori sticks.

Across London, sticksnsushi.com

Toca Social

Indoor hub of footy games, below, with food and drink on the side. Harry Kane likes it so much, he invested.

Peninsula Square, SE10, toca.social

Have they needed to? They nod. “I’d say [the response] has generally been pretty positive, although I’d definitely say there were teething issues when the kitchens first opened,” says Barn. “Our burgers were called ‘sandos’ when we started, but that just caused confusion and got lost in translation,” adds Bradley. “We’ve changed the menu a few times.”

This responsiveness may well be part of the appeal, though the other is clearly their celebrity. “We’ve been in London and bumped into fans who came here just to stay in a hotel so they could order Sides in,” recalls Barn. And all of them have stories of hundreds of fans appearing en masse after they’ve tweeted about being in town. Theirs, though, is an especially relatable kind of celebrity, they say. “There’s a sideman in every group of friends,” Payne explains. “Everyone who watches our content, they have a group of mates like us.”

What’s next? They’re coy, insisting on focusing on one thing at a time: more physical restaurants and kitchens alike across the UK, UAE, the US and India. But will we ever see them do fine dining? A bar? A food hall? “Nothing is off the table!” says Barn. “We’re always adapting, moving on to the next step.” You get the sense they’re a restless bunch, determined to always be in the mix. But then, of course they are: they were never going to sit it out on the sidelines — although, come to think of it, that’s probably the name of their next business.

Sides at BOXPARK Croydon opens on September 29; eatsides.com