Rainbow Bagels and Crazy Milkshakes: What Happens When a Dish Goes Viral

Nobody expected a video about bagels to shut down the bakery, but that’s what happened. The Bagel Store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, had been making rainbow bagels for 20 years when a Business Insider video about the candy-colored carbs went viral on Facebook.

The video has now been viewed more than 65.1 million times. (That's more views than the original Keyboard Cat and the Harvard baseball team's "Call Me Maybe" cover got on YouTube, combined.) Within days of its February 2 publication, the video was picked up by news outlets from The Huffington Post to MTV News and Time Out New Yorkas well as Eater.

Just a few weeks before Brooklyn succumbed to bagel mania, a similar sensation gripped Manhattan. "New York City is going insane over these next-level milkshakes," the January 18 BuzzFeed article announced, referring to elaborate shakes at Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer that are piled high with stuff like real cotton candy, caramel apples on sticks, or even an entire slice of cake, balanced atop scoops of ice cream. They appeared on the menu at Black Tap's two locations last fall. Executive chef Joe Isidori still remembers standing by the bar when he took the phone call from The Today Show. They told him about the BuzzFeed piece, which had just been posted. He hung up the phone and one of his staffers approached him: "Chef, we got a four-hour wait."

 

"We became so busy we had to shut everything down. I wasn’t happy with how I had to perform."

 

Restaurants drawing down-the-block-lines is not a new phenomenon. "Humans move in herds," says Adam Alter, a behavioral economist and marketing professor at New York University Stern School of Business. "When one or two influential people —€” or a larger number of everyday people —€” flock to a product, their endorsement suggests to other people that the product is worth pursuing."

In the age of social media, however, these endorsements can spread at such speed and scale that a chef's world can change literally overnight. In the case of the Bagel Store, the popularity of that video triggered a swarm of tourists so relentless the shop closed for 10 days so the baker could catch his breath.

"I closed the doors," says Scot Rossillo, the passionate, self-described bagel artist who created the rainbow bagel. "We became so busy we had to shut everything down. I had to clean up my facility, reorganize it, restructure it. I wasn't happy with how I had to perform."

This is the new wave of "viral food." If a dish is photogenic and shareable, all it takes is one influential user to post it for the "Everyone is Going Crazy for It" headline to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether a chef is catering to social media or just reaping its benefits, he still cannot control when a food goes viral. (Just last week, another NYC food item inexplicably re-appeared on food blogs, despite being on its restaurant's menu for 13 years.) And when it happens, the impact can be seismic. Beyond the excitement, it's a scramble to manage the crowds, stock supplies, and keep producing a quality product.

Managing the Rush

The line at Franklin Barbecue in Austin is one of the food world's most famous, and at this point has taken on a life of its own. (The line has its own Twitter account, and inspired an entrepreneurial middle-schooler to get rich holding spots for people.) But it built that following over time. The owners could adjust to it as it grew.

When a line grows exponentially overnight, however, it's a different story. "The first thing I had to lasso was crowd control," says Isidori. "Local residents started calling and saying, ‘We love you, but we don't want people on our stoop.'" At Black Tap's SoHo location, staff set up wooden signposts cutting off the line at the corner so pedestrians could still use the intersection at Broome and Sullivan. At the Meatpacking location, the metal parade barriers look like they could have been borrowed from a nearby nightclub.

And the thing is, Isidori wanted the publicity: He designed the milkshakes in partnership with his social media manager. They wanted to create something as eye-catching as it was delicious. Still, he couldn't predict when or if it would happen. "This happens once in a career lifetime," he says.

 

Isidori designed the milkshakes in partnership with his social media manager: "This happens once in a career lifetime."

 

On the other hand, Rossillo has been making rainbow bagels since the ‘90s, only to have tweens with smartphones showing up in 2016 to take selfies. He got lucky, in part. At the same time, even though he invented rainbow bagels before social media existed, he knew an opportunity when he saw it, and his latest Instagram pictures routinely get hundreds of likes. The shop saw an uptick in social media-fueled popularity when gay marriage was legalized last summer and when its Super Bowl-themed bagels got a shout-out from ESPN.

At the Bagel Store last weekend, residents walking Chihuahuas had to navigate the crowd of 60 plus people standing on the narrow sidewalk. It took 45 minutes to reach the door, and another 45 once you were inside.

In a gray felt fedora and short-sleeved floral-print shirt, Ross Almonor was the unofficial emcee of the afternoon. He organized the indoor portion of the line (about 30 people) as it curled around the single-room shop. "You can have whatever you want," he encouraged the customers waiting to place their orders at the counter. "Bacon, egg,and cheese, you can have it," he called to one young customer. "White fish, you can have it. Tuna, you can have it." He managed the flow, allowing one party in at a time to enter as others left. Rossillo says Almonor stepped up when he needed him. "He's in his element, he's a showman." Sometimes Rossillo sends out samples to keep customers happy.

Oiling the Machine

Shortly after the milkshakes took off, Isidori called to check on his ice cream order. "I was like, 'Yo, where's my ice cream?' and [my supplier] said, ‘Yo, you bought everything. You cleaned me out.'" He says food ordering has gone up across the board, because customers usually come for a full meal. Where he used to seat 300 covers a day, they now do as many as 500. He's had to adjust ordering to meet demand, and he's working on restructuring employee shifts from day and night to include a swing shift in the middle.

By now, Aaron Caddel of is something of an old-school viral food veteran. When he and his former partner Ry Stephen opened Mr. Holmes Bakehouse in San Francisco in November 2014, they introduced the U.S. to the cruffin —€” a filled, flaky half-croissant, half-muffin that originated in Caddel's native Australia. Since early 2015, thanks in part to Instagram, patrons have waited since sun-up for a chance to sample one. In the early days, when Mr. Holmes made only small batches, the shop would sell out of cruffins by 9:30 a.m. Caddel says the key to the pastry's long-lived popularity has been refusing to compromise quality —€” while still getting much faster at baking. "We teased apart the entire process of our baking —€” broke it into its logical pieces and reassembled it towards greater efficiency," he says. They maximized load capacity of the ovens, created "stress spreadsheets" to keep track of problems in the process, and made sure each employee was being used in his best capacity. "We increased the number of pastries we were producing and maintained a rigid commitment to perfection."

During the Bagel Store's closure, Rossillo says they rearranged the kitchen and cleaned out excess supplies to make the process more fluid. At the same time, however, he's going to keep doing things his way. He makes bagels by the hundred with only one other baker, Osiel Escobar, though he says he's looking to hire more staff. He still has not reopened online ordering. "Money doesn't move me," he says. "I refuse to cheapen my product." He wants every person to get exactly the bagel they are looking for when they come to his shop. They'll just have to wait while he makes them.

Making It Worth the Wait

Building customer loyalty for the establishment, not just a single product is a must because a viral trend tends to get played out. "Of course there are exceptions," says NYU's Alter (see: the Cronut). "But often these sorts of huge, unplanned viral hits generate short-term buzz." And New Yorkers are so jaded and opinionated that any new trend draws haters almost as soon as it takes off. At the Bagel Store last weekend, a woman cruising by in a car taunted, "What, are they giving away free bagels?" Brian Greene, 29, who lives in the neighborhood, was similarly unimpressed as he passed the store that afternoon. "It's a good bagel, don't get me wrong. The only bagel I'd wait 30 minutes for is Ess-a. Hands down best bagel in the city."

 

"Of course there are exceptions. But often these huge, unplanned viral hits generate short-term buzz."

 

Amid the buzz, Isidori is focusing on his mission to give guests a top-notch experience when they finally do make it inside. "You waited two hours? You got all the time in the world. They'll wait too," he says of encouraging customers to take their time and enjoy their meal once they get a table. He's thrilled that most customers are coming for burgers and fries, too. His burgers had already made several best-of-New York lists, so he thinks people will remember their Black Tap experience for more than just the whimsical shakes.

Last Sunday, 23-year-old student Melanie Corchado stepped out into the sun, clutching a white bag from the Bagel Store. She was visiting from Miami, and she and friends had spent their morning waiting two hours for a bagel they'd seen online. She unwrapped deli paper to reveal a pastel-swirled bagel. "Ohhh," she breathed as she pulled apart the halves, revealing the chocolately spread inside. "This is a cookies n' cream one." She didn't even stop to Instagram it before digging in.