Seeing long lines curl around the streets of SoHo is certainly nothing new. They could be a sign of the latest Nike x Off-White sneaker drop or Glossier bronzer, or maybe people are camped out for the new iPhone release. But lately a newer type of thought has creeped in: Is everyone just really stoked for a sandwich?
That’s because drop marketing techniques—most commonly associated with streetwear and sneaker brands like Supreme, Nike, and Stüssy—have crept into the food landscape. Chefs and owners are employing the spontaneous social media strategy to let their followers know that a limited-time dish is here and they’ve gotta act fast to get it.
“We are kind of the same people, even the best chefs now are streetwear guys,” says Miles Canares, who co-founded Family Style, a festival that creates exclusive collaborations between food and streetwear brands, with Bobby Kim and Ben Shenassafar of The Hundreds fame. “Chefs are independent and don’t want to follow the rules their predecessors have set. It’s about breaking boundaries and disrupting the market. That’s really where streetwear came from—a natural rebellion of the standard.”
Indeed, just as brands bucked the traditional fashion industry in the ’90s, food businesses are operating outside the fine dining restaurant mold. While food trucks, street food, and guerilla-style marketing existed long before the Covid-19 pandemic, these past two years have accelerated the popularity of one-off product drops.
“Restaurants really had to simplify their menus because of supply chain and labor issues,” says Liz Aviles, the VP of market intelligence for the Chicago-based Upshot Agency. “Now you’re having to create excitement over a must-eat dish. Plus, a lot of other sources of special were unavailable to us in many ways. It amplifies the appeal of these things we see as scarce.”
The idea of food drops has been percolating for a few years, due in large part to Instagram and TikTok. Many owners see social media as the most direct and authentic way to have a conversation with customers. Essentially, promoting a certain dish right as it’s released just makes sense for their brand.
“We’re really into hip-hop and streetwear culture and we think memes are funny,” says Steve Chu, co-owner of Ekiben in Baltimore, which drops Asian-influenced food items to many adoring, drooling fans. “A lot of restaurants take themselves seriously and seem too ego-driven. We just want to get people excited about a new product and I’m glad it comes across as hype, because it’s really just genuinely how we feel.”