Secret Menus and TikTok Order Hacks are out of control

Secret Menus and TikTok Order Hacks are out of control

The night I asked the souvlaki truck on my corner to put gyro meat on top of the feta fries, I felt like a god. My partner looked at me in confusion under the truck’s harsh lights. “Can you just do it?” I honestly didn’t know if I could. I was ready for them to say it was impossible, or just that they didn’t want to, and I would have gladly accepted the fries without the gyro. But asking, and then receiving, something you just made up in your head feels like you’ve entered a secret world of possibilities. And everyone loves a secret.

The menu “hack” has a long history – basically every time you’ve asked for no tomato, you’ve done it. But over the past few decades, the creepy “secret menu” at various fast food restaurants has passed by word of mouth, with more and more people becoming aware that In-N-Out’s “animal style” fries or a Chick-fil-A’s strawberry lemonade is only “secret” in history. In recent years, the menu hack has gone into overdrive. Widespread by YouTube, Instagram and now TikTok, as well as online ordering apps, these hacks are more complicated than ever – asking for two sauces or extra crispy fries just doesn’t cut it anymore. The videos show how you can get cheaper burritos, rainbow layered lattes and Big Macs for half the normal price.

Some have become so popular that chains have either added the hack to the official menu, or tried to crack down on a money-losing loophole in the app. But behind all these hacks are the workers who make them, who say they take up an increasing amount of orders and time. Hack culture has become a giant fast food that cannot be ignored. It looks like the epitome of the axiom “the customer is always right.” It can also be the sentence’s death rattle.

There have always been customers who have requested changes to their orders. But modern hack culture—the kind where you change the order from scratch, not when you just take two different sandwiches and mash them together at home—strangely enough, began to spread because of workers. Across TikTok, there are countless videos of baristas whipping up multi-colored drinks with cute names; many Reddit threads tell of tips and tricks from fast food employees. “I have a huge background in working with fast food and waiting tables. I waited at Denny’s, Applebee’s, Friendly’s, and then fast food places,” says JP Lambiase, co-founder of Hellthy Junk Food, a YouTube and TikTok brand that publishes an e-book on food hacks. “When you work in a place, you hack there.”

But as more fast-food companies launched apps that encouraged customers to join loyalty programs and order specifically through them (as a way to capture personal data), it was customers who started hacking. Lambiase says apps are “the ultimate hacker’s dream because [the chains] make mistakes” which are easily exploited by eagle-eyed customers.

While the first hacks were about creating newer and wilder dishes with the ingredients already in fast food kitchens, apps made it easier not only to order even weirder hacks, but to create hacks around price. Many of Lambiase’s hacks take advantage of how many free pages or extras are available on the app — like getting a pumpkin spice latte for $2.45 (it’s usually around $6) by modifying an iced espresso — that you might not be able to get if you should order in person. “If the video goes viral, [hackers are] like their tech support.” Recently, Chipotle changed its app based on a viral TikTok hack that showed customers how to get a burrito for under $4 by ordering a single $3 taco, a $0.40 tortilla, getting every topping on the side and put it together at home Now, while customers can still order a single taco at restaurants, they can no longer do so on the app.

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Elle, who asked that her last name be withheld, runs @secretmenudrinks on TikTok and says she’s been coming up with hacks for more than 15 years, since she was a teenager, and now orders everything on the app. “I noticed on Starbucks TikToks that people were saying things like, ‘I’d be too nervous to order this face-to-face,'” she says. “I loved the idea of ​​helping other people who love secret menu drinks but were too eager to try something new.” Lambiase agrees that the best advantage of the app is that it allows you to remain anonymous, make more elaborate orders without holding up a physical line, and perhaps without the embarrassment of saying out loud how many sides of sour cream or scoops of vanilla powder you want. “I literally don’t look at a single person’s face when I order the most disgusting drink at Starbucks.”

In a certain light, these might seem like noble crusades, keeping it to multinationals through the thousand tiny cuts of half-price loopholes, and letting workers let their own creativity shine. But according to many workers, the proliferation of hacking culture has only made their lives more difficult, requiring them to know another menu of drinks on top of the one they were actually trained on, taking up their time with more elaborate orders, and generally doing things more complicated.

“I’d say about two-thirds of the drinks I’d make would be a hack drink or a TikTok drink,” says Jesse, who asked that his last name be withheld. He’s worked at Starbucks locations in Ohio and New York for a little over a year, and says he’s seen the number of orders for these drinks increase while he’s been there, and that the drinks themselves have gotten more complicated over time. “I’ve started to unironically dread seeing younger customers come into the store,” he says.

Aimee Houvenagle, a Starbucks barista in Kentucky, has also seen the customizations become more common and more complicated. She says about a quarter of the drinks she makes have some form of customization, and has seen customers become more entitled to drinks baristas may never have heard of before. “A specific situation is when a customer ordered a mixed latte with strawberry cold foam (strawberry puree added to cold foam) with a secret menu name, and when I handed it out, they said ‘It doesn’t look like this’ and showed it to me on their phone.” Having to re-make the drink in the middle of a rush, she says more often than not, these hack orders wreak havoc on her workday because she has to learn new recipes on the fly. “It makes me stop, trying to figure out what they want, how to make it, actually make it, and more times than not, make it again, either because I messed up somewhere or because the person sent it back, either because it didn’t look like the pictures they had or because they didn’t like the taste.”

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As workers across the service industry continue to organize, and the issues they face become more and more public, there has been a growing backlash against hack culture. On the 7th of September this year, podcast host Josiah Hughes posted a series of Starbucks hacks from @starbiesdrinkideas on Twitter, with the simple comment “fyi.” It was a light crap post; he felt they were emblematic of a certain cruel corner of Facebook and would make people rise, but he said: “I’ve never seen so many violent, graphic murder/suicide comments on Twitter before … people have told me to kill myself, or that they would kill themselves if they were in line or working at Starbucks when this happened.” People responded saying that he should have spit in his drink, that he must hate baristas, and that there is something “deeply sick” about anyone who treats a barista as their personal chef. “The use of something as simple as ‘FYI’ was neutral enough for people to completely project all their rage about the current state of fast food culture.”

The vitriol got back to @starbiesdrinkideas, who defended their project on Instagram, posting in a photo that they always tip baristas and let others go ahead of them, saying in the comments: “I apologize to anyone who has ever had someone order a drink from my site (or elsewhere, like the secret Starbucks menu site for example) and been unkind to you/treated you badly or SOMETHING like that.” However, they specified that they would not be closing their account: “I love making these and it’s fun. I pay for these drinks just like everyone else, and like I said, I’m never rude.”

This is the attitude of most hack creators towards worker complaints; they apologize, and obviously shouldn’t be subject to death threats, but at the end of the day it’s the worker’s job to make what’s ordered. Like @starbiesdrinkideas, Elle says she encourages her viewers to be patient, give good tips and try to avoid ordering overly complicated things during a rush. She also says she limits her creations to what can be ordered on the app. However, given how much customization is available on the app, that doesn’t automatically make ordering any less complicated.

Lambiase says bluntly, “No,” when I ask him if he thinks about how difficult these adjustments might be for workers. “One [worker] a month can get a guy who does this. And it’s annoying, so they’re very vocal about it, he speculates. He also echoes the idea that if it’s available in the app, it’s fair game. “If the company allows that to happen, then it’s up to the company to decide what they want to do as far as the rules go.” If workers are frustrated, he says, they need to talk to the company.

In fact, these hacks eventually become a work problem. Making a TikTok drink wouldn’t be so demanding—it might even be a fun creative challenge—if the stores were well staffed, if the workers were paid a living wage, if the companies weren’t intent on busting unions, and if customers were patient and understanding when their wishes just aren’t possible.

Because the thing about hacks is that it’s not the orders themselves that are the problem, it’s the whole culture of expectation around them – that a drink that a stranger literally made up online should be second nature to a server, and that the should take the same time to make as iced coffee. That it’s no big deal if an order has a dozen different customizations, because the app lets you do that. It is the distinction between whether something is allowed, and whether it is actually a good idea. “I feel like the real issues are [customers] don’t want to feel guilty about ordering drinks they know are complicated, and they don’t value our work, says Houvenagle.

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But of course, hacks are a boon for companies. They drive name recognition, inspire brand loyalty and essentially do the menu development for them. There is no need to hire consultants and test chefs if a recipe goes free on TikTok. So it’s in their best interest not to change these apps unless, like with the Chipotle $3 burrito hack, it could lose them money. And even then, someone who finds a cheaper order but comes back more often, or at least constantly posts about the brand on social media, might be worth it overall.

Recently, Starbucks Workers United jokingly retweeted Hughes’ tweet, adding: “We MUST get paid more,” and Jesse and Houvenagle both say this is something very much on the union’s radar. “If we have to continue to make drinks like this, the union is behind us and will make sure we are taken care of and paid what we deserve,” says Jesse.

The increase in the organization of service workers, and the light shed by the pandemic on working conditions in the food industry, has made more people than ever aware that the customer is not always right, and that the workers are purposefully understaffed and underpaid so that the companies can continue to make greater profits. Ultimately, the change must come from both workers and customers challenging these companies – and also from customers reassessing their own relationship with service. “If the modification can be done on the drink, then yes, you’re allowed to order it,” says Jesse. “But I also feel that if you have to justify why you’re ‘allowed’ to order something so ridiculous and that it plays ‘by the rules’, maybe just rethink the drink recipe in the first place.”

The pulsating works of Marcus Eakers depicts exaggerated human experiences that draw influence from surrealism, symbolism, animation, illustration and everything in between.

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