What Really Happens When A Restaurant Goes Viral On TikTok

Everyone wants to go viral on TikTok, especially in the food and beverage industry. One positive review from a snarky but honest influencer with millions of followers can be the difference between a reservation war and a house full of empty tables. And particularly in hype-driven cities like New York and Los Angeles, popularity feeds popularity, with food media cycling through trends (think that "regular person food" trend) faster than any brick-and-mortar eatery could ever keep up with.

But what really happens when a restaurant goes viral on TikTok is often obscured. One day, a restaurant might be all over your feed, and the next, it's gone. But the actual physical restaurant lives on, adjusting to the attention (and its inevitable crash) in real-time. While many restaurants that go viral do thrive, others struggle to manage hordes of customers with limited seating space or staff. Some lean into the growth and then find themselves forgotten in the next trend wave. Supply chain issues, frustrated regulars, and chaos often ensue.

Cronut who?

Lafayette Grand Café & Bakery in Manhattan went viral in early 2022 for their Suprême croissant, a circular viennoiserie filled with various flavors, icing artfully dripping from the top of the pastry. They went from making 12 Suprêmes a day to up to 600 or more, with long lines around the bakery of people eager to buy up the entire day's stock of the pastry long before the end of the work day.

But Lafayette isn't simply a bakery. It's a fully operational restaurant that's been around for a decade, getting along just fine without its 15 seconds of Internet fame. "While we are incredibly grateful for the enthusiasm surrounding our Suprêmes, we have a great relationship as well with our guests who have long since enjoyed Lafayette for family dinners, coffee at the café, hosting their private events, and more," a PR representative from Lafayette told Food Republic. "New guests who line up to try the Suprêmes are often surprised to see our other offerings and will many times return for our Duck Confit, a drink at the bar, or even a different pastry selection."

Skirt Steak's big break

Another NYC mainstay that found an unexpected new audience is Skirt Steak, a Chelsea steakhouse that serves one thing: steak frites. At the end of 2021, the TikTok account @sistersnacking reviewed the restaurant, leading to an immediate boost in popularity. Chef Laurent Tourondel was amazed by what turned out to be a daily crowd at the restaurant, including a far younger clientele than the restaurant was used to.

Almost two years later, the crowds have diminished somewhat, but Skirt Steak is still packed. The restaurant hired new staff members to keep up with the surge in volume, but the team views the experience as a net positive. As Chef Tourondel told Food Republic, "I've been in the restaurant business for a very long time in New York. And, you know, we rely on having business through different newspapers and articles in magazines. And suddenly the whole thing changed to a version where someone randomly posts, who maybe doesn't necessarily know 100% about food as a food critic in a newspaper might, and suddenly your restaurant is full." 

The only major challenge Tourondel found was in sourcing enough steak to feed his guests, but it makes sense that it would be easier to scale up at a restaurant with one product than at a restaurant with dozens of menu items. Luckily, TikTok seems to favor singular, easy-to-understand food. Steak frites. Suprême croissant. Caviar bumps. Things that won't get lost amidst constant scrolling.

Courting TikTok

A new generation of restaurants, however, isn't waiting for TikTokers to find them. They are actively courting the platform and its users through bold aesthetics, tableside presentations, and other gimmicks that the three camera lenses on the back of your phone simply can't resist — not to mention paying influencers thousands of dollars to dine in and share the experience online. Think about restaurants like Bad Roman, New York's new favorite Italian spot, which was designed, bottom up, to be filmed and photographed. When menu items like the simple, somewhat goofy Pepperoni and Ranch go viral, it doesn't feel exciting so much as it feels inevitable.

Other restaurants leaning into TikTok, like Los Angeles chicken shop The Red Chickz, don't leave it up to others to keep their content in your feed. As early adopters of the platform, their in-house social media team puts in the hours every week to make sure that their chicken is always trending, and they've leveraged this popularity into franchising across the country.

The dark side of going viral

But some bar and restaurant owners who have been blessed by TikTok virality see it as more of a curse. Folderol, a Parisian wine bar and ice cream shop that went viral in early 2023, was overwhelmed by the crowds, who seemed more interested in taking photos at the shop than actually enjoying its wares. Regulars from the neighborhood stopped coming to avoid the chaos, and the bar's owners ended up banning customers from posing outside for photos and hiring a bouncer to control the crowds.

Meanwhile, in Naples, an employee at the sandwich shop Ai Monti Lattari was forced by his bosses to stay off of TikTok after his viral videos brought too many tourists and would-be influencers to the shop.

Still others basked in a brief glow of success during a moment of hype, like the noodle shop MDK Noodles, which experienced a boost in sales of the relatively unknown Korean dalgona candy after the treat made an appearance on "Squid Game." The sales came fast, then died down after a few weeks.

TikTok has proven to many to be a fickle friend, so the message seems clear: Take advantage while you can — because popularity often comes at a price.