The pink sauce went viral on TikTok. But then it blew up (literally). – TechCrunch

about the last month, a chef in Miami has taken over TikTok with her flagship product: Pink Sauce. Carly Pii, who goes by the username @chef.pii, posted a series of videos promoting her homemade relish, spraying heinous puddles of deep magenta dressing over gyros, fried chicken, fries, and tacos.

Notoriously secretive about the flavor of her sauce, Pii spun the internet’s biggest mystery since the cinnamon-roasted shrimp guy, earning herself internet fame (or infamy, depending on how you slice it).

Before Pink Sauce, Pii had less than 1,000 followers on TikTok, but now has more than 80,000 followers and 3 million likes. For anyone selling a product on TikTok, going viral might seem like a dream, but for this TikToker, it has become more of a nightmare.

“We didn’t have the opportunity, like other small businesses, to go through trial and error, to learn from our mistakes and recover from them,” Pii said in a live video last night, streamed on his TikTok and YouTube. “We didn’t have that opportunity because we blew up so fast. We went viral very quickly.”

A recipe for disaster

“What would you do if you were in my place?” Pii said in her live video of her. “Could you just crawl into the corner and hide?”

A single mother of two, Pii says she has been working as a private chef for four years. Before TikTok, she posted dozens of YouTube videos between 2018 and 2020, ranging from mukbang videos to weight loss vlogs, in which she followed fad diets with dubious 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 YouTube channel of years, she made the decision to bottle and sell Pink Sauce for $20 a bottle.

Price aside, his new followers noticed that some key details were missing: what does it taste like, what is it made of, and why is it pink? It even promoted its supposed health benefits without disclosing the ingredients.

“Honestly, she has her own taste,” Pii said on TikTok. “If you want to try it, buy it.”

The mystery has wowed TikTokers, with the #pinksauce hashtag racking up more than 80 million views. Many TikTokers wanted to root for Pii and see a black creator succeed, but salsa’s launch was so chaotic that it became difficult for her rapidly growing audience to give her the benefit of the doubt.

As he prepared to list Pink Sauce for sale on his website, he had yet to reveal the source of its colorful hue, and to complicate matters, viewers noted that in every video he posted, the sauce’s hue and consistency seemed change.

Image credits: @chef.pii on TikTok

“The color didn’t change, just the lighting,” he said on another TikTok. He later explained on the live video of him that the brighter pink sauce from the previous videos of him was a prototype, not the product he was mailing out (make of that what you will).

When Pii finally revealed the ingredients of her pink sauce before it went on sale, we were left with more questions than answers. According to a graphic on her website, the sauce got its pink color from dragon fruit, also known as pitaya, which grows naturally with a deep magenta pigment. Although the fruit has a mild flavor, some testers described the sauce as sweet ranch, which makes sense, given the rest of the ingredients on their chart: sunflower seed oil, honey, chili, and garlic.

But then we come to the nutrition label. TikTokers pointed out that the nutrition facts just don’t add up: If there were 444 one-scoop servings in the bottle at 90 calories each, then there would be almost 40,000 calories in the bottle, which doesn’t make mathematical sense.

“Our nutrition facts label had a mistake and now they’re trying to go ahead and say the nutrition facts are falsified because there’s a typo,” Pii told the Daily Dot. “No one will receive a bottle that has a messed up label. We had to redo practically everything. But business is business.”

tiktok pink sauce label

Image credits: the pink sauce (Opens in a new window)

But the serving size issue wasn’t the only issue at play. Aside from the misspelling of “vinegar,” the nutrition label says that the product, which is sold unrefrigerated and without instructions on how to store it, contains milk. Once again, he did not clarify until making his live video that he is apparently using powdered milk and pitaya, which are not preserved.

The most dramatic moment in Pink Sauce’s history came after the first shipments were delivered about two weeks ago in a package that looks like a plastic bag. Sure enough, the pink sauce exploded in transit, creating a stinky mess.

Chef Pii acknowledged the damaged packages earlier this week, saying only 50 customers received the poorly packaged items. She said that she’s sending out a new sauce to any affected customers who come near her, and now, the shipments are delivered in boxes (which, of course, are bright pink).

The tricky territory of the food business for creators

After exploding packages, faulty nutrition labels, and general confusion about what people are eating, Chef Pii is the “main character” of today’s internet, which is usually not a good thing.

“This is a small company that is moving very, very fast,” Chef 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 a creator-led attempt at a food business reflects the larger struggles of both food startups and creator products.

At a certain point, the pink sauce narrative stretched beyond what Pii could control. A meme account with over 100,000 followers on Twitter repeated a meme of an IV hospital image and added the caption “DON’T EAT TIKTOK PINK SAUCE.” Posts like that inadvertently sparked rumors that people had gone to the hospital because of their sauce, but we haven’t seen any evidence to confirm that’s true. One user posted a video on TikTok (their only upload of it) claiming to be in the hospital after eating the product, but TechCrunch has been 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 undeniably true that Pii made some mistakes. He acknowledged that she printed incorrect nutrition labels and accidentally mailed Pink Sauce in packaging that caused it to explode in transit. But is she an elaborate con artist, or is she a first-time businesswoman who makes some major public mistakes and then falls victim to the dark human desire to immerse herself in 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.

Even if you wanted to give Chef Pii the benefit of the doubt, she continues to make mistakes publicly. On Twitter, the “F in the FDA” phase became a trend after a video was circulated in which Pii asked: “FDA approved? What does FDA approved mean? I do not sell medical products. Of course, FDA stands for Food and Drug Administration, and as the name suggests, it regulates both foods and drugs.

The pink sauce panic is not the first such mistake on social media. Earlier this year, a $25 homemade “sunflower soup” also went viral on TikTok with… quite 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 faced the dire consequences that can come from selling food.

Daily Harvest, a plant-based meal delivery service valued at more than $1 billion, 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 for Cosmopolitan who also received a PR package, posted a viral TikTok detailing her extensive medical issues and hospital visits since she ate the lentils. Several customers on Reddit reported similar symptoms and were sent to the ER.

It really does feel like Theranos. Where is your food made? Farmers make the ingredients, but who REALLY MAKES AND PACKS THE FOOD? a customer wrote on Reddit. This week, Daily Harvest announced that tara flour, which they say doesn’t show up in any of their other dishes, caused the problem.

Even if a startup doesn’t send people to the hospital, one misstep could irreparably damage the company (and innocent consumers), making it even more difficult for businesses around comfort food to operate.

Last year, Andreessen Horowitz led the $20 million Series A round for Shef, a marketplace for home chefs. Shef is especially popular with customers from other countries who are eager to enjoy a taste of home from a chef who shares their heritage. Despite sending cooks home through a 150-step onboarding process, Shef must deal with the legal issues at play with his business. Each state has different cottage food laws, which regulate the sale of cottage foods. In states like California, the intricacies of the law can even vary by county. An e-commerce platform for independent chefs, Castiron also raised venture funds last year. Castiron came about as many states have made it easier in the pandemic era to run independent food businesses legally, but the platform still needs to be careful to make sure its partners comply with their local laws.

Small food businesses are even more challenging to operate as independent creators, as TikTokers generally can’t afford to fund businesses to help them traverse such complicated legal and ethical territory. Some major social media stars like MrBeast, Emma Chamberlain, and the Green Brothers have launched their own ghost kitchens and coffee businesses, but these creators are established enough to have the resources to launch such businesses properly. An unknown chef in Miami is not that reliable.

Even when you remove the element of selling a product that people are putting on their real bodies, we’ve seen some pretty memorable influencer business explosions on social media. Do you remember Caroline Calloway’s mason jar crisis? Now startups like Cobalt and Pietra benefit from helping creators launch their own products, but unfortunately, Calloway’s public disputes require more than just a business partner to resolve.

Despite the targeted online vitriol, Pii is not giving up. She said the product is lab tested, manufactured in a facility and follows FDA standards. Once she passes, she wants to try to put the product in stores. She also stated on her account that this week alone she was shipping over 1,000 orders.

So what is the moral of the story here? Maybe artificial food coloring isn’t so bad after all.