Over the last month, a chef in Miami has been taking 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 egregious pools of deep magenta dressing atop gyros, fried chicken, french fries and tacos.
Notoriously close-lipped about what her sauce even tastes like, Pii spun the biggest internet mystery since cinnamon toast shrimp guy, earning herself internet fame (or infamy, depending on how you look at it).
Before Pink Sauce, Pii had fewer than 1,000 followers on TikTok, but now she's racked up more than 80,000 followers and 3 million likes. For anyone peddling a product on TikTok, going viral might seem like the dream -- but for this TikToker, it's become more of a nightmare.
"We didn't get the opportunity like other small businesses to go through trial and error, to learn through our mistakes and recover from them," Pii said in a live video last night, streaming on her TikTok and YouTube. "We didn't have that opportunity because we blew up so fast. We went viral so fast."
A recipe for disaster
"What would you do if y'all was in my shoes?" Pii said in her live video. "Would you just crawl in the corner and hide?"
A single mom with two children, 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, which ranged from mukbang videos to weight loss vlogs, in which she followed fad diets with dubious nutritional backing. The pink sauce debacle began about a month ago, when Pii shared her homemade, vibrant pink concoction on her small TikTok account. As the chef swiftly gained millions of views on the platform, far outpacing her years-old YouTube channel, she made the decision to bottle and sell Pink Sauce for $20 a bottle.
Pricing aside, her new followers noticed that some key details were missing: what does it taste like, what is it made out of, and why is it pink? She even touted its supposed health benefits without revealing the ingredients.
"Honestly, it has its own taste," Pii said on TikTok. "If you want to taste it, buy it."
The mystery has enraptured TikTokers, with the #pinksauce hashtag racking up over 80 million views. Many TikTokers wanted to root for Pii and watch a Black female creator succeed -- but the roll-out of the sauce was so chaotic that it became hard for her fast-growing audience 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 its colorful hue -- and to make matters stranger, viewers noticed that in each video she posted, the shade and consistency of the sauce seemed to change.
Image Credits: @chef.pii on TikTok
"The color didn't change, just the lighting," she said in another TikTok. She later elaborated in her live video that the brighter pink sauce from her earlier videos was a prototype, not the product she was mailing out (make of that what you will).
When Pii finally revealed the ingredients of her pink sauce before putting it up for sale, we were left with even more questions than answers. According to a graphic on her website, the sauce got its pink coloring from dragonfruit, also known as pitaya, which grows naturally with a deep magenta pigment. Though the fruit has a mild taste, some testers described the sauce as a sweet ranch, which makes sense, given the rest of the ingredients on her graphic: sunflower seed oil, honey, chili and garlic.
But then we get to the nutrition label. TikTokers pointed out that the nutrition facts simply 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 make mathematical sense.
“Our nutrition fact label had an error in it and now they’re trying to carry it along and say the nutrition is falsified because there’s a typo,” Pii told the Daily Dot. “No one will receive a bottle that has the messed up label. We had to redo everything pretty much. But business is business.”
Image Credits: The Pink Sauce (opens in a new window)
But the serving size snafu wasn't the only issue at play. Aside from the misspelling of "vinegar," the nutrition label says that the product -- which is sold unrefrigerated with no instructions on how to store it -- contains milk. Once again, she didn't clarify until making her live video that she is apparently using dried milk and pitaya, which are shelf-stable.
The most dramatic moment in the story of Pink Sauce came after the first shipments of 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.
Chef Pii acknowledged the damaged packages earlier this week and said that only 50 customers received the poorly packaged items. She said she is sending any affected customer who reaches out to her a new sauce, and now, shipments are being delivered in boxes (which, of course, are bright pink).
The tricky territory of creator food businesses
After exploding packages, faulty nutrition labels and general confusion about what people are even eating, Chef Pii is today's "main character" of the internet, which is usually not a good thing.
"This is a small business that is just moving really, really 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-run attempt at a food business reflects the larger struggles of both food startups and creator products alike.
At a certain point, the narrative of the pink sauce spun out beyond what Pii could control. A meme account with over 100,000 Twitter followers iterated on a meme of a picture of a hospital IV, adding the caption "DO NOT EAT THE PINK SAUCE FROM TIKTOK." Posts like that inadvertently sparked rumors that people had gone to the hospital because of her sauce, but we haven't seen any evidence to confirm that it's true. One user posted a video on TikTok (their only upload) claiming to be at the hospital after eating the product, but TechCrunch hasn't been able to verify these claims.
As questionable information spreads across TikTok like a game of telephone, it's hard to distinguish fact from fiction -- but it's indisputably true that Pii made some mistakes. She owned up to printing incorrect nutrition labels and accidentally mailing out Pink Sauce in packaging that caused it to explode in transit. But is she an elaborate scammer, or is she a first-time entrepreneur making some big, public mistakes, then falling victim to the dark human desire to dunk on a common victim until they evaporate 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 publicly make concerning mistakes. On Twitter, the phase "F in FDA" trended after a video circulated in which Pii asked, "FDA approved? What do you mean FDA approved? I don't sell medical products." Of course, FDA stands for Food and Drug Administration, and as its name suggests, it regulates both food and drugs.
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 navigated the serious consequences that can arise when selling food.
Daily Harvest, a plant-based meal delivery service valued at over $1 billion, recently recalled its French Lentil and Leek Crumbles product after hundreds of customers reported severe sickness 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, a digital creative director at Cosmopolitan who also received a PR package, posted a viral TikTok detailing her extensive medical issues and hospital visits since eating the lentils. Several customers on Reddit reported similar symptoms, sending them to the ER.
"Really feels Theranos like. Where is their food made?? The farmers make the ingredients but who ACTUALLY MAKES AND PACKAGES THE FOOD??" one customer wrote on Reddit. This week, Daily Harvest announced that tara flour -- which they say doesn't appear in any of their other dishes -- caused the problem.
Even if a startup isn't sending people to the hospital, one false step might irreparably damage the company (and innocent consumers), making it even more difficult to operate companies around home-cooked food.
Last year, Andreessen Horowitz led the $20 million Series A round for Shef, a marketplace for home chefs. Shef is especially popular among customers from other countries who are eager to indulge in a taste of home from a chef who shares their heritage. Despite sending home cooks through a 150-step onboarding process, Shef must contend with the legal issues at play with their business. Each state has different cottage food laws, which regulate the sale of homemade foods. In states like California, the intricacies of the law can vary even down to the county. An e-commerce platform for independent chefs, Castiron also raised venture funding last year. Castiron emerged as many states have made it easier in the pandemic era to legally run independent food businesses, but the platform still has to be careful to make sure that its partners are following their local laws.
Small food businesses are even more challenging to operate as an independent creator, since TikTokers generally don't have the luxury of venture funding to help them wade through such tricky legal and ethical territory. Some major social 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 isn't as trustworthy.
Even when you remove the element of selling a product that people are putting into their actual bodies, we've watched some pretty memorable influencer business blow-ups on social media. Remember Caroline Calloway's mason jar crisis? Now, 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 solve.
Despite the targeted online vitriol, Pii isn't giving up. She said that the product is in lab testing, made in a facility and follows FDA standards. Once it passes, she wants to try to put the product in stores. She also stated on her account that just this week, she was sending out more than 1,000 orders.
So, what's the moral of the story here? Maybe artificial food coloring isn't so bad after all.