How Food Goes Viral

It’s April 1, 2017. I’m standing outside of Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York City waiting for my first ever cronut. It’s also almost exactly four years after the release of the hybrid pastry known for its mass internet fame, but tourists are still gathering for it hours before the bakery opens. On this particular morning, fans are lining up around the block to be the first to try April’s flavor of the month, blood orange almond.

That same night, I dragged my friend Dan out in pouring rain just so I could finally try cereal milk soft serve and b’day truffles from Milk Bar. At the time, Christina Tosi’s bakery did not yet have the nationwide recognition that is does today. Her innovative creations like Crack Pie and cakes without frosting started popping up on Instagram slowly, then all at once. Soon after, Tosi opened new locations of Milk Bar in cities across the country.

Thinking about imaginative, Willy Wonka type foods now, they are as common as the last picture you saw on your Instagram feed of green and purple ice cream in a fish-shaped cone from Taiyaki NYC or exploding banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery. When people go to New York City, these photogenic creations have a sort of celebrity status from their overwhelming presence on social media. But it wasn’t always this way. The Cronut, Milk Bar and the saying “phone eats first” paved the path for what we now call viral foods.

Viral foods are flashy and over the top. They are made for the phone screen. It’s impossible to scroll past them on Instagram without feeling a pang of desire. They are also marketing tools. With this newfound internet food fame, came a rush of restaurants trying to create the next big sensation as a way to bring in customers because every post and every story is advertising.

Consider how you decide where to eat on vacation. If you are a millennial or gen z, the answer may be from a restaurant you saw on Instagram. In my personal life, there is no better example of this than Catch NYC. Their “Hit Me” dessert came out of nowhere after being featured in a Buzzfeed video. All of a sudden, my Instagram feed and explore page were saturated with videos of diners cracking open a Klondike bar filled with white chocolate ganache to spill over layers of chocolate cake. It is tailored for videos and social media. Every plate comes with a chocolate tab that has #hitme on it silently coaxing customers to post it. Within a few weeks, most of my friends had been there and bragged about it on Instagram. 

While viral foods were born in New York, every city now has their own collection of foods that people flock to. That is where food Instagrammers and bloggers come in. Foodie influencers are vital to the success of making a restaurant trendy. They have inside connections with business owners, often attend openings or blogger parties, eat for free in exchange for posts and if they have enough followers, get paid for their partnership.

Tradesman’s croissants instantly became Boston foodgram stars when they were released. Photos by Olivia Hutchins.

In Boston where our Instagram is based, the circle of bloggers is large, but close. We often message each other about the newest foods and see each other at events. Boston’s foodie feeds are always highlighting the next big thing whether it is Tradesman’s signature red velvet and birthday cake croissants or decorated waffles on a stick from Sweet Waffles + Boba.

Recently, the restaurant Koy hosted dozens of foodgrammers for dinner, including us. They gave each blogger a $50 gift card to give away on their feed in the hopes of solidifying Koy as a viral destination. Bar manager Kilder Cardona told Olivia and me its first step was to have items that catch people’s attention like their ceramic tiki cups. Cardona said the restaurant’s next move was to work with bloggers “to help the word of mouth spread.” They hoped by hosting foodies and running giveaways, Koy would come up more often when searching #bostonfood.

Koy served us dishes like their angry chicken, bang bang cauliflower and bimbimbap. Photo by Meg Williams.

This kind of Instagram campaign is not unusual for businesses and can actually be quite successful. Emily Chan is the owner behind @bostonfoodgram, an account she started in 2015 that has now amassed over 36,000 followers. In the world of Boston food bloggers, she is at the top. Chan says she gets emails daily from restaurants and PR companies asking her to come in to try their food and post about it.

“Instagram is a critical component of advertisement to boost the popularity of a restaurant. Patrons dining out, especially in their 20s-30s, look to Instagram to help them find restaurants to dine at,” Chan explained.

In terms of advertising, hosting a blogger can be much more cost effective than using traditional methods like online or print ads. Most are not paid to post, so the restaurant only has to cover food costs and gift cards if a giveaway is part of the partnership. Giveaways mutually benefit bloggers and businesses, which is why they are everywhere now on Instagram. The terms of a social media giveaway are often as follows, follow us and the company then tag three of your friends in the post to be entered. By forcing followers to tag people, an audience that was not originally interested in a brand is now introduced to it, and offered a gift card if they follow and tag their friends. These giveaways can often spiral into thousands of comments and hundreds of new followers for restaurants and bloggers.

Nicholas Chan, the man behind @the_boston_eats, an account with more than 11,000 followers, said he started his account because he wanted to see what it would take to get free food from restaurants. Now, Chan has a different perspective on food blogging.

“At first I was very into doing promotions, but as time went on I became less and less interested. There’s a weird line between being a sell-out and doing what I actually want to do, which is write food reviews. Constantly going to random restaurants is also very time consuming, and I don’t think I’m big enough to do advertisements for financial gain (just a free meal here and there), so I very rarely do promotions or collaborations now. I mostly just post what I am personally interested in eating,” he explained.

Chan explains it best. What is viral, or striving to become viral, may not be what we actually want to eat. It may not be special at all aside from its appearance. Think back to the rainbow bagel craze. People went nuts for these multi-colored sandwiches filled with funfetti cream cheese even though plenty of reviews said it didn’t taste great. It’s no longer trending.

“I think Instagram is helpful, but doesn’t make or break a restaurant. It’s good for word of mouth and getting the initial word out there, but I think restaurant location, how good the food is and the value are far more important in determining if a place will succeed,” Chan said, and he is right.

Dominique Ansel Bakery and Milk Bar are still food destinations that bring in tourists like they just found fame yesterday. The culinary masterminds behind them continue to craft new, aesthetically pleasing desserts that delight customers, but taste even better. These two New York staples are icons in the food world. Their initial Instagram stardom stayed not because of food bloggers and posts, but because they surpass being a novelty.

Viral foods come and go. Many may not withstand time because they were simply made to be a marketing tool. The fleeting momentum restaurants and creative teams behind these foods experience may stick, but only if they continue to innovate and their ideas are just genius enough. An Instagram audience does not stay captive forever.

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