Susie Vannet recently worked at a Starbucks in Austin, Texas. And she noticed this pattern: In the morning she’d get her regulars ordering a drip coffee or a latte. But in the afternoon after school let out, the kids would descend on the store. And the orders would get complicated.
“They’re picked up by their mom and they’re in the back seat of the car and they’re, you know, reading off the instructions to their mom at the drive through or they come into the lobby and they order these bananas drinks,” she said. “And they look at me like I’m this geriatric weirdo. I’m like, ‘Can you say it again?'”
She says a lot of young customers, mostly women and girls under the age of 25, would order drinks like the Mermaid Frappuccino, the Medicine Ball and Taylor Swift’s drink. Every order would end with a selfie because these drinks start on TikTok.
Right now, the Barbie Drink is all the rage: a venti vanilla creme Frappuccino with three pumps of vanilla, three pumps of raspberry, half and half, mixed with freeze dried dragon fruit, topped with whipped cream and more dragon fruit.
“In the end, these people are coming out with $8 drinks that started at like $4. They just customize wildly,” said Vannet.
Menu hacks have always been a feature of fast food: a double double animal style with well done fries, anyone? But to both the delight and dismay of fast food and restaurant chains, there’s a growing corner of TikTok devoted to hacking, from orders that are all about excess to ones that save money.
The combination of social media and digital ordering has made it easier for people to Frankenstein together new foods, according to Alex Susskind, who directs the Food and Beverage Institute at Cornell University. Even he has tried hacks at McDonalds.
“You order a um, a double quarter pounder and a four piece McNuggets, and you basically put the nuggets on the sandwich and you basically have a chicken burger,” he said.
Some of these word-of-mouth trends are combinations customers have discovered. Others are actually created and planted by the companies themselves to create hype.
“Restaurant companies have always been aware of the value of being on the inside, right? Creating something where you know something that other people don’t know and that creates a sense of, I guess, uniqueness. It creates a sense of added value,” he said.
Added value, yes. And sometimes chaos.
“People are always trying to hack the menu. And when there’s a lot of different items on the side it can actually slow down the line,” said Tressie Lieberman, vice president of digital marketing and off-premise at Chipotle.
The $3 burrito hack at Chipotle involved ordering a single taco, ordering tons of free and cheap sides and assembling the burrito yourself. Chipotle banned the order because, well, $3 burrito. And also because fast food margins are all about speed. Anything unusual slows it down.
But hacks are also a great form of marketing and menu development. Last summer, content creator Alexis Frost ordered a steak quesadilla with fajita veggies and a side of queso. Other creators picked up the trend.
It became so popular that Chipotle added it to the online menu. It’s even labeled “as seen on TikTok.” Since then, Chipotle has seen digital sales hit their all time high. Most of those customers also signed up for digital rewards. And for Chipotle, digital rewards means data.
Frost got something out of it too: a business partnership. The former high school math teacher says she makes anywhere from $5,000 to $35,000 from these types of deals. Still, most of her content is on her own, hacking menus from the front seat of her car with care.
“I can understand how that can probably be really frustrating to someone who’s working, like trying to do all these things, right?” she said.
She said she usually orders most of the items separate and assembles them herself.
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