What happens when a Toronto restaurant blows up on TikTok

Share:

Would you travel far and wide for a dish described to you in a robotic text-to-speech voice? Does your platonic brunch come in a pizza box? Have you tried every birria taco in town?

If so, you’ve probably spent some time on Toronto food TikTok.

The ultra-popular social media app and short video platform has a big handful of local creators who travel to various restaurants in the city to make recommendations. For some spots, it’s making menus – or at least specific menu items – go viral. Search around and you’ll find recommendations for Korean rice dogs, mango desserts, all kinds of poutine and, of course, fried chicken sandwiches.

That’s been extra helpful for local restaurants during the pandemic. At a time when diners can’t eat in and foot traffic is greatly reduced, TikTok is drawing people back to restaurants. 

Surprise lineups

One Friday afternoon early this year, the Light Cafe sprouted a huge lineup snaking across Baldwin Street. It was so busy, staff were overwhelmed. 

“It’s unusual to have a lineup like that on a regular weekday,” says Jennifer Wong, a partner in the downtown Toronto cafe, which is a spinoff of the Light Cafe in Taiwan. “We’re usually more busy on weekends.”

She asked some of the customers what brought them there, and one of them showed her a TikTok video her daughter had sent her. A simple clip by a user named @cheekosfeet, the post was barely 10 seconds long: an establishing shot of their window and then a quick peek inside a pizza box arranged with scrambled eggs, salad, tater tots, a lobster croissant and a little stack of mini pancakes. 

Light Cafe introduced the brunch boxes a couple of months into the pandemic as part of a new, more takeout-friendly menu. They sent it out to a few local influencers on Instagram, but months later this clip turned them into a trend. The user only had about 2,000 followers at the time (now they have over 11,000) but the video quickly went viral. 

It inspired other TikToks that also blew up. Some raved about “Toronto’s famous brunch boxes,” others complained it was overrated or overpriced. Soon, other restaurants were selling brunch boxes and more TikToks sprouted up to rate them against each other. 

The impact was more than anecdotal. Light Cafe, like so many restaurants, had to lay off half of their staff when the first lockdown hit, but the success of the brunch boxes allowed them to hire more people. The’ve introduced an online pre-ordering system to reduce wait times and crowding, but head over on a weekend and you’ll see people ordering the box, walking to their cars, then opening it up and filming on their phones.