From Coke floats to Cronuts, going viral can have a lasting effect on a small business

NEW YORK — The Lexington Candy Shop in New York City has served burgers, fries and shakes to hungry patrons for decades. Last remodeled in 1948, the diner is the definition of old-fashioned.

But that hasn’t stopped it from getting 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, popped in for a traditional Coke float – Coke syrup, soda water and ice cream. Naturally, he took a video. It went viral, garnering 4.8 million likes.

“The next day (after the video was posted), the lines started forming at 8 in the morning,” John Philis, the diner’s third-generation co-owner, recalls with amazement. “And it was like, huh!”

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 crush of people. But savvy business owners who are able to adapt can parlay newfound fame into a lasting boost for their business.

Ali Elreda opened Fatima’s Grill in Downey, California, in 2016, drawing in customers with an eclectic range of tacos, wraps and burgers.

He sprinkled Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in some of them, inspired by his daughter’s love of hot chips. By 2020, Elreda had worked hard to develop his restaurant’s social media presence, shooting videos with music. But after a TikToker dubbed @misohungry posted a video of Elreda’s Flaming Hot Cheeto Fusion burger that August, things suddenly “just went crazy.”

Lines to get into the restaurant ballooned to two to three hours – for months. At first, the store wasn’t ready for the influx.

“We just couldn’t adjust,” he said. “We would stay late hours to prep for the next day and then the lines would continue and continue and continue and continue.”

Opening two nearby restaurants helped relieve the pressure. Elreda now has 10 locations, including newly opened restaurants in Detroit and Brooklyn — an expansion started by one viral video.

“Social media can make you or break you,” he said. “It catapulted us to starting to franchise and getting the name out there. It’s been a blessing.”

When Kevin Muccular opened Aunt Bill’s soul food restaurant in Katy, Texas, just last year, crowds were sparse at first because Katy is a suburb about half an hour outside of bustling Houston. That all changed when a TikToker who goes by Mr. Chimetime posteda video in July lavishing praise on Aunt Bill’s brisket hot dog, waffles and customer service.

The floodgates opened and didn’t stop.

“People poured in from everywhere, every seat taken, the lines, down the street and around the corner, a three, four-hour wait time in line in the middle of the Texas summer,” Muccular said.

He rushed to prepare food and put his vendors on standby, but the demand was overwhelming. He bought all of the ingredients he could find at nearby Sam’s Club and Walmart stores, and had friends check stores in their areas. The fire marshal was called twice about the crowd.

“We were ill prepared for exactly what happened over the next two weeks of our business,” he said. “We were hiring staff on the spot. I cooked more than I ever have in my entire life.”

Muccular hired a consultant to help figure out how to revamp his business to serve the crowds in an efficient manner. Among the changes: He shifted walk up to-go orders to an online system and created a reservation system for tables.

Two months later, the restaurant is still bustling. The restaurant now serves 800 to 1,000 people a day, up from 200 to 250. Longer term, Muccular has plans to open a food truck to serve people all over Texas.

“We refer to everything as pre-Chimetime and post-Chimetime,” he said. “What Mr. Chimetime did for our small business changed the fabric of what we are for forever.”

At the Lexington Candy Shop, Philis thought the craze of last August would die down after Labor Day, or during the holidays. But a year later, the crowds are still going strong.

On a recent weekday, Australian vacationer Max Ferfoglia, 32, stopped by the diner for a float. He said he had found the diner via social media.

“We were looking to try and find what are the ‘must do’s’ in this beautiful city,” he said. “And the diner was one that just was constantly being recommended as iconic via YouTube, TikTok. … So we just had to come and try it out.”

For Philis, the boost in business is a welcome relief after the diner suffered from a steep drop in customers during the pandemic.

Before Nico’s visit, he sold 10 Coke floats a day. Today it’s 200 on weekdays and 500 a day on weekends. He hasn’t raised his prices.

A float is $12.50 including tax. Plus, people who come in for a float may order a burger, fries or other menu item.

“Every day we’re going home and we’re tired,” he said. “But it’s a good tired.”

One person who knows about going 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 doughnut, at his newly opened New York bakery. The Cronut created a craze the old-fashioned way, through newspaper and TV news reports.

Ansel remembers the frantic early days, when the bakery had to hire security to control the line:

“It was chaos in the morning. People were lining up at 2 a.m. in the morning, hitting each other. Neighbors were calling the police,” he remembered.

Ten years later, Ansel has plenty of other bestselling pastries and store locations in Hong Kong and Las Vegas. But there’s still a line outside the original Dominique Ansel bakery for 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 in the beginning,” he said. He was approached to do deals for mass producing the Cronut, but he declined.

“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 into the longevity of the product.”

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