In the last month, a Miami chef took over TikTok with her signature product: pink sauce. Carly Pii, who uses the handle @chef.pii, posted a series of videos promoting her homemade condiment, drizzling glaring puddles of deep magenta dressing over gyros, fried chicken, fries and tacos.
Notoriously gawking at the very taste of his sauce, Pii has unraveled the internet’s biggest mystery since the cinnamon-grilled shrimp dude, earning him internet fame (or infamy, depending on how you go). you are looking at).
Before Pink Sauce, Pii had less than 1,000 followers on TikTok, but now she has over 80,000 followers and 3 million likes. For anyone peddling a product on TikTok, going viral might seem like a dream — but for this TikToker, it’s become more of a nightmare.
“We haven’t had the opportunity like other small businesses to go through trial and error, learn from our mistakes and recover from them,” Pii said in a live video last night. , broadcast on his TikTok and YouTube. “We didn’t have that opportunity because we exploded so quickly. We went viral so fast.
A recipe for disaster
“What would you do if you were me? Pii said in her live video. “Do you just want to crawl around the corner and hide?”
A single mother with two children, Pii says she has worked as a private chef for four years. Prior to TikTok, she posted dozens of YouTube videos between 2018 and 2020, which ranged from mukbang videos to weight loss vlogs, in which she followed fad diets with questionable nutritional support. The pink sauce debacle started about a month ago, when Pii shared her vibrant homemade pink concoction on her little TikTok account. As the chef quickly gained millions of views on the platform, far surpassing her years-old YouTube channel, she made the decision to bottle and sell Pink Sauce for $20 a bottle.
Aside from the price, her new followers noticed some key details were missing: what does it taste like, what is it made of and why is it pink? She even touted its supposed health benefits without revealing the ingredients.
“Honestly, he has his own taste,” Pii said on TikTok. “If you want to taste it, buy it.”
The mystery has delighted TikTokers, with the hashtag #pinksauce racking up over 80 million views. Many TikTokers wanted to cheer on Pii and see a black designer succeed — but rolling out the sauce was so chaotic that it became difficult for her rapidly growing following to give her the benefit of the doubt.
As she prepared to put Pink Sauce up for sale on her website, she still wouldn’t reveal the source of her colorful hue – and to make matters stranger, viewers noticed that in every video she has published, the nuance and consistency of the sauce seemed to change.
“The color hasn’t changed, just the lighting,” she said in another TikTok. She later explained in her live video that the brighter pink sauce from her previous videos was a prototype, not the product she was sending (do what you want with it).
When Pii finally revealed the ingredients for her pink sauce before it went on sale, we were left with even more questions than answers. According to a graphic on its website, the sauce gets its pink coloring from dragon fruit, also known as pitaya, which grows naturally with a deep magenta pigment. Although the fruit tastes sweet, some testers described the sauce as sweet ranch, which makes sense, given the rest of the ingredients on its chart: sunflower seed oil, honey, chili, and garlic.
But then we come to the nutrition label. TikTokers pointed out that the nutritional values just don’t add up – if there were 444 one-tablespoon servings in the bottle at 90 calories each, then there would be nearly 40,000 calories in the bottle, which doesn’t add up. makes no mathematical sense.
“Our nutrition label had an error and now they are trying to keep it and say the nutrition is tampered with because there is a typo,” Pii told the Daily Dot. “Nobody will get a bottle with a messed up label. We had to redo pretty much everything. But business is business.
But the serving size snafu wasn’t the only issue at stake. Besides the misspelling of “vinegar”, the nutrition label states that the product – which is sold unrefrigerated with no instructions on how to keep it – contains milk. Again, she didn’t specify before doing her live video that she apparently uses powdered milk and dragon fruit, which are shelf-stable.
The most dramatic moment in Pink Sauce’s history came after the first shipments were delivered about two weeks ago in packaging that looks like a plastic bag. Sure enough, the pink sauce exploded in transit, creating a stinky mess.
Chief Pii acknowledged the damaged packages earlier this week and said only 50 customers received the poorly packaged items. She said she sends new sauce to any affected customer who contacts her, and now the shipments come in boxes (which, of course, are hot pink).
The tricky territory of designer food companies
After exploding packaging, faulty nutrition labels, and general confusion over what people are even eating, Chef Pii is now the “main character” of the internet, which usually isn’t a good thing.
“It’s a small business that moves very, very fast,” Chief Pii said in an apology on TikTok.
Going viral on TikTok is so normalized now that Pink Sauce’s temporary cultural ubiquity isn’t what makes it interesting. But this very public breakdown of an attempted creator-led food company reflects the broader struggles of food startups and designer products.
At some point, the pink sauce storyline grew beyond what Pii could control. A same account with over 100,000 Twitter followers iterating over a meme of a hospital IV photo, adding the caption “DON’T EAT TIKTOK PINK SAUCE”. Messages like this inadvertently triggered rumors that people had gone to hospital because of his sauce, but we haven’t seen any evidence to confirm that’s true. A user posted a video on TikTok (their only upload) claiming to be in the hospital after eating the product, but TechCrunch was unable to verify these claims.
As questionable information spreads on TikTok like a phone game, it’s hard to tell fact from fiction – but it’s undeniable that Pii made mistakes. She admitted printing incorrect nutrition labels and accidentally sending pink sauce in a package that caused it to explode in transit. But is she an elaborate hustler, or is she an early entrepreneur who makes big public mistakes, then falls victim to the dark human desire to dunk on a common victim until she evaporates from the internet? Would the internet be so upset if a white man was the one behind the pink sauce? Who can say.
The pink sauce panic isn’t the first social media snafu of its kind. Earlier this year, a homemade $25 “sunflower soup” also went viral on TikTok to…pretty mixed reviews. Now, the sunflower soup creator’s TikTok account appears to have been deleted.
It makes sense that people are so hesitant about products like Pink Sauce when even startups backed by Bobby Flay and Gwyneth Paltrow have overcome the serious consequences that can occur when selling food.
Daily Harvest, a billion-dollar plant-based meal delivery service, recently recalled its French Lentil and Leek Crumbles product after hundreds of customers reported serious illness after eating it. Luke Pearson, an influencer who received a PR package from the company, had to have his gallbladder removed after suffering weeks of illness. Abigail Silverman, digital creative director at Cosmopolitan who also received a PR package, posted a viral TikTok detailing her many medical issues and hospital visits since she ate the lentils. Several customers on Reddit reported similar symptoms, sending them to the emergency room.
“Really looks like Theranos. Where is their food made?? Farmers make the ingredients, but who ACTUALLY MAKES AND PACKS THE FOOD? a customer wrote on Reddit. This week, Daily Harvest reported that tara flour – which they say does not appear in any of their other dishes – caused the problem.
Even if a startup doesn’t send people to the hospital, one misstep can irreparably damage the company (and innocent consumers), making it even harder to operate businesses around home-cooked food.
Last year, Andreessen Horowitz led the $20 million Series A for Shef, a market for home chefs. Shef is especially popular with customers from other countries wanting a taste of the home of a chef who shares their heritage. Despite sending home cooks through a 150-step onboarding process, Shef has to contend with the legal issues at stake with their business. Each state has different cottage food laws, which regulate the sale of homemade food. In states like California, the intricacies of the law can vary down to the county. An e-commerce platform for independent chefs, Castiron also raised venture capital funds last year. Castiron emerged as many states made it easier in the pandemic era to legally run independent food businesses, but the platform still needs to make sure its partners follow their local laws.
Small food businesses are even harder to operate as an independent creator, as TikTokers typically don’t have the luxury of venture capital funding to help them navigate such tricky legal and ethical territory. Some big social stars like MrBeast, Emma Chamberlain and the Green Brothers have started their own ghost kitchens and cafe businesses, but these creators are established enough to have the resources to properly launch such ventures. An unknown chef in Miami is not so trustworthy.
Even when you remove the selling element of a product that people put on their actual bodies, we’ve seen some pretty memorable influencer explosions on social media. Do you remember Caroline Calloway’s mason jar crisis? Today, startups like Cobalt and Pietra profit by helping creators launch their own products, but unfortunately Calloway’s public disputes require more than just a business partner to resolve.
Despite targeted online vitriol, Pii isn’t giving up. She said the product is being tested in a lab, manufactured in a facility, and meets FDA standards. Once it’s gone, she wants to try to get the product into stores. She also said on her account that this week alone she was sending over 1,000 orders.
So what’s the moral of the story here? Maybe artificial food coloring isn’t so bad after all.