Jack Gillespie has what any teen or 20-something could only dream of: a lifetime supply of boba tea.
When the 19-year-old student from Arlington Heights posted a TikTok of the new Hangout Cafe in Palatine, his eight-second clip raked in tens of thousands of views. People began flocking to the place. The owners took notice, sliding into his DMs to offer unlimited boba.
Since creating his account (@visuals.by.jack) last April, Gillespie has garnered nearly 282,000 followers and 13.9 million likes. The app has become a burgeoning platform for Chicago’s small businesses in gaining more young customers, potentially pushing out sites like Yelp and Tripadvisor, which have long been a norm in the food industry.
“TikTok is a storytelling app, and food is fodder for storytelling,” says Jenna Drenten, a Loyola University marketing professor who researches the app’s influence on consumer behavior. “It’s probably the perfect combination.”
Now, restaurants no longer need a Michelin star to see success. The key ingredient for a line out the door is a viral video. As new businesses pop up, owners are gravitating toward the “TikTok model,” intentionally creating unique storefronts and cutesy foods to garner attention online. But as whimsical cafes become more common, some have taken to TikTok to highlight the restaurants that aren’t as video-worthy—from mom-and-pop diners without social media pages to hidden family-owned stores lacking adequate advertising.
Launched in 2016 under the name Musical.ly, TikTok has seen significant growth in a short span. More than 689 million people used the app in January, making it the seventh largest among social media platforms—ahead of Snapchat, Pinterest, and Twitter, all of which have existed longer than TikTok.
Drenten has seen young people increasingly use TikTok to help inform their purchasing decisions, especially when it comes to choosing where to eat—62 percent of the platform’s U.S. audience is between the ages of ten and 29.
Though no one really understands how the app’s algorithm works, the “For You” page, TikTok’s personalized and curated feed, is known to be creepily attuned to users’ tastes. That makes content creators trustworthy sources on the city’s eats, Drenten says. As of May, the hashtags #chicagorestaurants and #chicagofood have a total of nearly 100 million views. More than 2.4 million of them, accumulated in just two days, come from Cori Hanna’s post of “spots to impress friends in Chicago.” The “vibes” at the Goose Island restaurant Azul Marisco are “immaculate,” she says to her 127,600 followers. The video transitions to Hanna amid a teetering margarita tower, stacked with four bottles of Patrón tequila.
Drenten says TikTok users, especially those who are in the Gen Z and millennial generations, are attracted to the fact that anybody—no matter how young, old, or unequipped—has the potential to go viral.
On TikTok, “authenticity” is prioritized over the skin-smoothing filters and “hey, look at me” culture of Instagram. To enter influencer territory, Drenten says “it’s all based on the persona” that a user creates. Gaining legitimacy as a TikTok foodie doesn’t mean one has to know about food—one just needs to know how to be a good, and honest, storyteller.
The platform glamorizes the everyday, ordinary person, putting them on a level playing field with seasoned professionals. “There’s a bit of a pushback against experts, where expertise is actually seen as a bad thing—it’s seen as an ivory tower and pretentious to some extent,” Drenten says. “The New York Times food editor isn’t any more legitimate than a 16-year-old who goes around the south side of Chicago taking people to their favorite hot dog stands.”
Many creators are either students or just starting their careers. The account @explorechicago is run by two sisters from Harwood Heights, Yasmeen and Leen Alqaissi, who are 17 and 19 years old. Their faces are rarely shown onscreen, but the sibling duo has captured 2.7 million likes on TikTok, featuring businesses with extravagant menus. In their video of Brothers Restaurant in Avondale, they show off a shamrock shake topped with ice cream sandwiches and rainbow Airheads candy.
Gen Z’s especially anti-power ethos has cultivated an atmosphere on TikTok that rejects the hierarchical system of what it means to be “legitimate, to be reputable, to have a right to be in a certain space,” Drenten says. What matters is making content that proves to be valuable.
“Gen Z is like, ‘Everyone can come to the party!’ And you don’t need to prove yourself,” Drenten adds, laughing. “They’re going to uplift voices of people just because they find them entertaining or fun or interesting—not because of the credentials that previous generations have placed value on.”
Erin Byrne, the thumbs behind @312food—an account with 1.5 million likes—shifted to TikTok as a way of expanding her already-popular Instagram account by the same name. The 36-year-old, who lives in Lakeview, says TikTok can reach audiences in ways that Instagram cannot.
“When you follow somebody on Instagram, that’s most of the content you see. Almost everybody you’re reaching as an influencer is somebody who has chosen to follow you and opt into your content on a regular basis,” she says, pointing to a TikTok clip of hers that has been watched by 13 million people. “On TikTok, the majority of your content is seen by people who don’t follow you, so it’s almost the opposite in terms of the reach that you get for any particular post.”
Though a restaurant’s menu is important, some popular Chicago TikTok creators look for more than just dishes that are pleasing to the palate. They want the “vibe” that will get them likes and engagement—bars with mini golf courses, cafes with sparkly matcha lattes, bakeries with rainbow walls.
The videos are seamless. “Welcome to my life in Chicago,” says Dana Joelle (@danajoelle._)—the TikTok creator whose bio says she’s “keeping Chicago hot”—in a series about her “fabulous” city escapades. The 24-year-old who grew up in the Gold Coast works in the cryptocurrency and blockchain industry, but like many other foodies, calls TikTok a “side hustle.”
Clad in a hot pink blazer, Joelle shows her Valentine’s Day brunch at Terrace 16 in Trump Tower, recommending the lobster omelette and bottomless Veuve Clicquot champagne. In another video, with nearly 50,000 views, she heads to the Metropolitan Club for date night. “If you have not been to the restaurant on the 67th floor of the Sears, I mean Willis, Tower, then you’re simply not dining correctly,” she says as the video flashes between shots of short-rib wagyu, goat cheese cheesecake and the building’s classy interior. “This place is never crowded and I don’t know why. It’s the definition of fabulous.”
Joelle knows her content isn’t for everyone. It’s tailored for those who enjoy a sophisticated atmosphere and the chance to dress up. “For the most part, since I grew up here, this is the life that I was always living,” she says. “The following I do have is a really strong one because they’re people who are like me.”
Michael Loumeau, 28, runs the @bestdatefood account with his partner Aly Bainbridge. After biking in July to visit one of their favorite patisseries, Maison Marcel, they were instead greeted by the newly opened Beacon Doughnuts in Lincoln Park. Located in a nondescript alley, they advertised the “hidden gem,” with its splashy floral mural and picture-perfect doughnuts, on TikTok. As Doja Cat’s song “Say So” plays, the text “Check it out before it gets too popular!” flashes onto the screen.
The place did, in fact, get popular.
“Nobody was there when we went,” Loumeau says. “We made our video, got over a million views, and based on what the owner was messaging us, they sold out literally every single day after that. They couldn’t keep up with demand and the line became 30 to 40 people, open to close.”
At the end of April, Loumeau quit his job at an insurance company to take on @bestdatefood full-time. He plans on eventually monetizing some of his videos as he builds an audience, as well as creating merch, seeking out paid partnerships, and allowing companies to pay for advertising space on their pages.
While food content can attract millions of eyeballs, small businesses in Chicago have been slow to hop on the TikTok bandwagon, instead pumping time and dollars into Facebook, Instagram, and traditional advertising.
Byrne, who runs her own marketing company for small businesses, has seen the hesitation firsthand. “I’m trying to get my clients on there, but even I’m kind of struggling with it because it’s time-consuming,” she says. Making an account is easy but “understanding how to make the types of content that do go viral and to justify the time put in it” is a different story.
TikTok does not provide the same detailed analytics as other social media apps do, making it difficult for businesses to pinpoint whether viewers become patrons. The app can also feel inaccessible to restaurant owners who lack the knowledge, and often hours, to create viral content.
But Byrne and Drenten say now is the time for local companies to jump ship from aged apps. “Those who do, will do very well as a result of it,” Byrne says. Just as Myspace became the new Facebook became the new Instagram, older platforms have become too saturated with restaurants “spamming you all hours of the day.”
One Chicago restaurant that has caught onto the TikTok trend is The Budlong Hot Chicken. The shop, which has four locations in the city, has its own TikTok specialist, Caitlin Hendricks. In its most popular clip, Hendricks wakes her dad with a hot chicken sandwich from Budlong. After blinking sleep out of his eyes, he takes a giant bite, relishing in the tastiness. The views: 1.1 million.
Other owners let the TikTokers do the talking, reaping the benefits of customer-generated reviews on the app. But Drenten says the best way for businesses to take advantage of the platform is to make their stores as TikTok-able and “thirst trap-able” as possible, prompting people to share their own pictures and videos online. “There’s just a ton of power on this platform right now, especially in the ability to go viral and reach people,” she says. “I think for local businesses, if they figure out how to jump on here at the right time, it can make a really big difference.”
Nick Jennings, who opened the bar Big Mini Putt Club during the end of March, the only nine-hole mini golf course in the city, says he and his business partner crafted the space to be photogenic and eyepopping for this very reason. Customers love modeling in the club’s vintage Yamaha golf cart and posing in front of the neon sign that illuminates the words “I like big putts and I cannot lie.”
The free advertising works. “Anecdotally, the reach we’ve gotten from that is really impressive,” Jennings says. “We already have a slate of regulars that have come back four or five times, and I think the benefit is the stickiness of the TikTok customers. It gets them in the door, and I don’t think these are one-and-done customers by any means.”
Another recently opened store in Lincoln Park called Matchacita, co-owned by Bianca Pearson, has picked up on the same trend: TikTok traffic begets customer traffic. When a video of her cafe’s Purple Haze latte, a combo of matcha, lavender, CBD, and oat milk, went viral, she was unsurprised.
The store was designed to be pretty. The cafe has a wall of fake grass draped with pastel flowers, alongside a glowing pink “Squeez the day” sign. The TikTokers stand out, people who are “definitely going in to take photos,” Pearson says. On one April day, high school and college students lined up outside the door, waiting to give the drinks they saw on the Internet a try. “Truthfully, I think that social media has almost all the power nowadays,” she says. “I feel like you only use social media now to see what you like out there.”
But what about the businesses that aren’t made for portraits?
Such is the downfall of TikTok, Drenten says. Despite boasting delicious dishes, new and established restaurants that aren’t located in “trendy,” heavily gentrified or majority white neighborhoods, like Lincoln Park and Wicker Park, may not be able to attract foodies looking for an aesthetic akin to the Hampton Socials and Summer House Santa Monicas of Chicago. Businesses owned by people of color, and menus with foods that may not fit Western standards of attractiveness, are especially impacted.
“TikTok has definitely been in some hot water for privileging white creators on the ‘For You’ page over creators of color,” Drenten says.
A few TikTokers have brought underrepresented stores to the forefront of the platform, plugging restaurants with little social media presence. Michele Thompson, an auditor at Kraft Heinz, manages @chelethefoodsnob, a TikTok account with more than 90,000 views. The 31-year-old moved from Alabama to Rogers Park in 2019. She is one of the few creators who specifically highlights Black-owned restaurants in the city. “Right now, I really feel like everyone’s trying to go to places that look expensive and fancy to try to give the illusion that they can afford it, like they’re bougie,” she says. “I’m all for it, I love it, I really do. But I think that’s what they think people want to see.”
Thompson fell in love with TikTok because the videos don’t “make it look any extra than what it is,” and people, in turn, fell in love with her for her realness. “They saw I wasn’t really trying to sell them anything, I wasn’t trying to sell the ambience,” she says. “I was just trying to sell good food, I was trying to sell good businesses.”
“These videos show you exactly what you’ll get,” Thompson adds. You can dress up an Instagram post with vignettes and filters, but you can’t fake video footage.
Shifa Zhong, a 24-year-old Bridgeport resident, showcases the best of Chinatown. He recently declined an offer to work for the global ad agency Leo Burnett to start his own digital marketing company, geared specifically to Chinatown businesses. Zhong educates owners on the benefits of advertising through social media. “Most of their mindsets are that once they establish the business, they don’t need to do anything else and that people will come,” he says. “But that’s not the case, especially with this pandemic.”
Over the past decade during which Chinatown has been “his playground,” Zhong has watched as businesses have shuttered and the number of tourists has dwindled. In an unofficial survey, he asked ten Chinatown visitors where they were headed. All named the same three stores, though the neighborhood has more than 50 unique businesses. That led him to his own personal mission: to bring life, and money, back into Asian-owned shops.
To learn more about TikTok, he started his own account @chinatownshifa, posting content of his favorite restaurants in the area. Despite having about the same number of followers on Instagram, he says TikTok’s algorithm has gotten him more reach.
Instagram is where “you always want to post the best version of yourself,” Zhong says, which he thinks pales in comparison to TikTok’s rawness. “Gen Z kids are really smart. If you look at a video, we can see if it is faked, staged, or posed in an inauthentic way,” he says. “If you put some bullshit out or try to fake some stuff, people will call you out.”
As a firm believer in the impact of short-form video content, he knows TikTok can make or break a local business. The possibilities and options within the app, he says, are endless.
“This is our generation, and there’s literally nothing that can stop us right now,” Zhong says. “TikTok is like our reality TV show—I’m talking about a Kim Kardashian level of production.” v