The Lexington Candy Shop in New York City has been serving burgers, fries, and milkshakes to hungry customers for decades. Last remodeled in 1948, the restaurant is the definition of old-fashioned. But that hasn’t stopped it from gaining a wave of new fans. In August 2022, this old-school business met the new world when Nicolas Heller, a TikToker and Instagrammer with 1.2 million followers known as New York Nico, showed up to enjoy a traditional Coca-Cola soft drink: syrup Coca-Cola, sparkling water and ice cream. Naturally, he recorded a video. It went viral and got 4.8 million likes.
“The next day (after the video was posted), the lines started forming at 8 in the morning,” John Philis, the restaurant’s third-generation co-owner, recalls with amazement. “And it was like, huh!”
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When a smaller restaurant unexpectedly goes viral on TikTok or other social media, the sudden demand can be overwhelming. Owners have to adapt on the fly, revamping operations to quickly serve a crowd of people. But smart business owners who are able to adapt can take advantage of the newfound fame to generate lasting momentum for their businesses.
Ali Elreda opened Fatima’s Grill in Downey, California, in 2016, attracting customers with an eclectic variety of tacos, wraps and burgers.
He sprinkled Flamin’ Hot Cheetos on some of them, inspired by his daughter’s love of hot chips. In 2020, Elreda had worked hard to develop her restaurant’s presence on social media, recording videos set to music. But after a TikToker nicknamed @misohungry posted a video of Elreda’s Flaming Hot Cheeto Fusion burger in August, things suddenly “went crazy.”
The lines to enter the restaurant increased to two or three hours, for months. At first, the store was not prepared for the influx.
“We just couldn’t adapt,” he said. “We would stay late to prepare for the next day and then the lines would go on and on and on and on.”
The opening of two nearby restaurants helped alleviate the pressure. Elreda now has 10 locations, including recently opened restaurants in Detroit and Brooklyn, an expansion sparked by a viral video.
“Social media can make or break you,” he said. “It catapulted us to start franchising and get the name out there. “It has been a blessing.”
When Kevin Muccular opened Aunt Bill’s soul food restaurant in Katy, Texas, last year, crowds were thin at first because Katy is a suburb about a half hour from bustling Houston. That all changed when a TikToker who goes by the name Mr. Chimetime posted. video in July praising Aunt Bill’s brisket hot dog, waffles and customer service.
The floodgates opened and didn’t stop.
“People came from everywhere, from every seat occupied, from the lines, from the street and around the corner, a wait of three or four hours, time waiting in line in the middle of the Texas summer,” Muccular said.
He rushed to prepare the food and put his vendors on alert, but the demand was overwhelming. He bought all the ingredients he could find at nearby Sam’s Club and Walmart stores, and had his friends check out the stores in his area. The fire chief was called out twice by the crowd.
“We were ill-prepared for exactly what happened over the next two weeks of our business,” he said. “We were hiring on the spot. I cooked more than I ever had in my entire life. “
Muccular hired a consultant to help it figure out how to revamp its business to serve crowds efficiently. Among the changes: He moved takeout orders to an online system and created a table reservation system.
Two months later, the restaurant is still bustling with activity. The restaurant now serves 800 to 1,000 people a day, up from 200 to 250. In the long term, Muccular plans to open a food truck to serve people throughout Texas.
“We refer to everything as before and after Chimetime,” he said. “What Mr. Chimetime did for our small business forever changed the essence of who we are.”
At Lexington Candy Shop, Philis thought the madness of last August would calm down after Labor Day or during the holidays. But a year later, the crowd is still going strong.
On a recent weekday, Australian tourist Max Ferfoglia, 32, stopped by the restaurant to catch a float. He said he had found the restaurant through social media.
“We were trying to find out what are the things to do in this beautiful city,” he said. “And the restaurant was one that was constantly recommended as iconic across YouTube and TikTok. So we had to come and try it.”
For Philis, the boost in business is a welcome relief after the restaurant suffered a sharp drop in customers during the pandemic. Before Nico’s visit, he sold 10 Coca-Cola sodas a day. Today it is 200 on weekdays and 500 per day on weekends. It has not raised its prices. A float costs $12.50, including tax. Additionally, people who come to see a float can order a burger, fries or another menu item.
“Every day we come home and we’re tired,” he said. “But it’s a good tired.”
One person who knows what it’s like to go viral is Dominique Ansel. In 2013, before most people knew the term “going viral,” the French pastry chef created the “Cronut,” a cross between a croissant and a donut, at his newly opened bakery in New York. The Cronut created a fashion the old-fashioned way, through newspaper reports and television news.
Ansel remembers the hectic first days, when the bakery had to hire security to control the line:
“It was chaos in the morning. People were lining up at 2 in the morning and hitting each other. The neighbors were calling the police,” he recalled.
Ten years later, Ansel has many other best-selling cakes and shops in Hong Kong and Las Vegas. But there’s still a line outside Dominique Ansel’s original bakery to buy the Cronut. These days the line is cheerful. The bakery even hands out umbrellas when it rains and roses on Valentine’s Day.
“I think the most important thing is not to overreact at first,” he said. He was approached to make arrangements for mass production of the Cronut, but he refused.
“You don’t want to kill the idea because you want to make money,” Ansel said. “You want to build something real and you want to invest in the longevity of the product.”
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