At a Waffle House in Georgia, the customer is not always right.
Two weeks earlier, @shantellxoxo posted a TikTok video about how she had satisfied a pregnancy craving by ordering a Texas bacon melt with waffles instead of bread. The combination was so amazing that it could only be described using expletives. Her video got more than 6.3 million views, and TikTok users soon overwhelmed their local Waffle Houses with requests for the sandwich, which costs about $20.
This happens often: People post online about their favorite items or custom orders at chain restaurants. These food reviews can spread quickly, leading to overwhelmed employees, chaos at fast-food establishments and ingredient shortages.
These custom requests mean workers “have to adapt really quickly to figure out what the item is and adjust accordingly,” said Adam Chandler, author of the book “Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom.” “It really places a lot of stress on fast-food workers.”
Njeri Boss, vice president of public relations at Waffle House, said the Norcross, Ga., company wants to take care of its customers and did not instruct workers to deny orders for the waffle sandwich. The TikTok creator @shantellxoxo did not respond to requests for comment.
Some chain restaurants have figured out how to deal with these social media boosts. But for unprepared companies, going viral can cause more pain than profit. Here’s how several brands have dealt with it.
Alexis Frost, who’s 38 and based in San Jose, sparked the craze for quesadillas with steak and fajita veggies inside, dipped in Chipotle vinaigrette mixed with sour cream. The idea came from a follower of hers who was a Chipotle employee. Keith Lee, then a popular TikTok food reviewer, gave it a rare “ten out of ten.” A new TikTok food trend was born.
Frost, whose video has about 1.9 million views, said the way the Chipotle worker had suggested the dish convinced her to try it. “They said it would taste like a Philly cheesesteak,” she noted. “And it really does.”
This became an issue for some Chipotle locations when the orders kept workers from their usual pace, according to Chris Brandt, the company’s chief marketing officer. A Chipotle service manager who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution said increased demand for items like fajita veggies and vinaigrette, which require a lot of prep time, makes overworked employees’ jobs even harder.
Chipotle initially told workers to be selective about complying with orders for the $12.55 fajita quesadilla. Some stores began to deny the dish, putting out signs that read: “Protein and cheese only on quesadilla!”
Chandler, the fast-food author, notes that while social media trends offer the potential for increased revenue, they can cause problems. “Service has slowed down, in part because people have started modifying their orders. So we’re looking at a context where fast food is becoming less fast,” Chandler said.
“Our employees are one to accommodate the guest,” Brandt said. “They have a can-do attitude toward everything, and we kind of need to protect them from themselves a little bit.”
The company hired Lee and Frost in January to record an official TikTok notifying customers to stop ordering the dish. However, it will officially be available in March.
Joe and the Juice
TikTok’s impact doesn’t stop at secret menus — it can drive demand for regular menu items, too. Danielle Zaslavsky had a small following on TikTok, where she posted about travel and fashion. In September, she posted a video raving about Joe and the Juice’s $10.20 “tunacado” sandwich, which reached more than 1.6 million views and vastly grew her following.
“When I shared [the video], the intention was not to blow it up, but just the pure enjoyment of a good tuna sandwich that I like and eat multiple times a week,” Zaslavsky said in an email.
This video had tangible results for Joe and the Juice, a coffee and juice bar. “We could see a clear carry-over to the sales of our tunacado,” said the company’s global brand and communications director, Kasper Garnell, who noted that in the months after Zaslavsky first posted about the sandwich, sales of the item rose 58 percent.
On the downside, it was hard to keep up with orders. “We were literally running out of ingredients to put in our tunacado,” Garnell said. “We had a couple weeks of tuna shortage … and there were key stores that had doubled or tripled the sale in tuna sandwiches.”
Garnell noted that Joe and the Juice now understands the value of content spreading organically.
After her initial video, the company invited Zaslavsky to film a TikTok video where she made a sandwich with a Joe and the Juice team member at a company kitchen in New York. Since then, former Joe and the Juice workers have leaked the recipe on TikTok.
Momofuku chili oil and tinned fish
Zaslavsky’s influence didn’t stop there. She has another popular video of her eating her favorite snack: a corn crisp cracker topped with one smoked mussel and chili crunch sauce drizzled on top. With more than 2.2 million views and endless videos of TikTokers re-creating the eccentric snack, the ingredients — Momofuku chili sauce, Craize corn chips and canned seafood from Patagonia Provisions and Scout — are now in demand.
Patagonia Provisions, an extension of Patagonia that sells tinned seafoods, said demand for their $8 tins of smoked mussels increased threefold since Zaslavsky posted the TikTok. “We sold out of smoked mussels online within two weeks of the video being posted,” said Jessica Davis, a spokesperson for Patagonia Provisions. Patagonia Provisions decided not to rush to meet rising demand, Davis added, because doing so would have an adverse environmental impact.
Scout, another tinned fish brand available at Whole Foods, reported that after the initial video in November, canned mussel sales more than doubled.
The week after Zaslavsky’s video, Momofuku reported a 30 percent spike in sales of its products at Whole Foods, where Zaslavsky had directed her followers to find the $13 chili crunch, said Ryan Healy, Momofuku’s brand and marketing vice president.
“It’s not the way we set out to do this, but she’s bringing more people into our world,” Healy said.
Healy said Momofuku was thrilled to see the product being used in ways the company never anticipated. Consumers have started Facebook groups for their favorite ways to eat Momofuku’s chili sauce, including spreading it on ice cream and topping salads with the crunch mixed with brown sugar and mustard.
“We see [TikTok trends] as a positive thing and hopefully broaden people’s minds — to help change the way people eat and eat more adventurously,” Healy said.
Kyle Melnick contributed to this report.