But like all social media, no amount of creative and timely posts, trend monitoring or marketing trials can force that tantalizing, elusive moment when a TikTok video goes viral. Say a nail artist drives 80 miles to Veronica’s Kitchen in Inglewood, Ca., and films herself trying West African staple fufu, which 6 million people watch, kicking off a global #fufuchallenge in which people document their reactions trying it for the first time, and quadrupling business at Veronica’s Kitchen almost overnight.
Or all of a sudden, the food you’ve been serving all along becomes a main plot point in a hit TV show, and TikTok creators everywhere want to try it. The Korean noodle and dumpling chain MDK Noodles had been selling dalgona, the stamped Korean candy, for at least a year when “Squid Game” aired on Netflix last September. Dalgona, featured in a life-or-death challenge in the third episode, then became a TikTok favorite, and the chain, which has locations in L.A. Anaheim, and Houston, saw sales go from a couple dozen pieces a month to as many as 500 in a month at a single location.
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But the tides change frequently on the video-sharing app, and it can be hard to snare, much less hang onto, a viral moment. Demand for MDK’s dalgona has since slipped to 150 to 200 pieces monthly, says Stacey Shin, who runs MDK Houston. The attention caught them by surprise, and she’s not sure they took enough advantage of it. Similarly, a search for Veronica’s Kitchen on TikTok shows that most of the top viral videos featuring the restaurant and its fufu were published in late 2021; very few videos featuring the restaurant seem to have made a splash in 2022.
Tourondel of Skirt Steak says business has yet to slow down after the viral TikTok videos, and has added a busser, waiter and an extra runner to accommodate the always-packed dining room. Yet from his perspective, none of it would last unless his business already had the goods to draw consistent crowds. “TikTok helped us accelerate our popularity,” he says. “Are we popular just because of TikTok? I don’t think so.”
Restaurateurs unsure of whether to invest in TikTok can no longer ignore the potential upside—whether from a single @sistersnacking review or even the echo effect resulting from happening to serve dalgona when it became a global phenomenon. While a viral moment isn’t guaranteed, even the skeptical must now consider building TikTok into their restaurant’s base marketing strategy. The rub here is this platform lives and dies by breathless creativity, making it harder to phone it in. Then again, who’s to say how long TikTok itself will retain “It” status? Not so long ago, Instagram was the platform, and Snapchat before it—albeit briefly, then Twitter, Facebook and MySpace (anyone?). For a while, Lalehzarian thought Clubhouse, the audio chat room app, might overtake TikTok; so far it hasn’t caught on.
“The point is, you can’t fight it, especially with the growth of technology and virtual reality that’s growing so fast and spilling into every part of our lives,” Lalehzarian says. “I’m sure the next platform is going to be something else that’s beyond what we can even conceive of now.”
Indeed, the next It platform is as hard to predict as it is inevitable, almost like waking up to find out that dalgona candy is trending.