Food is the new streetwear
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If you’ve ever walked down Lafayette Street in Soho, NYC, you’ve likely weaved through the crowds of hypebeasts—humans devoted to acquiring the latest sneakers or limited-run apparel—waiting in line for the latest Supreme drop.
Maybe you thought: who in the hell would wait hours in line for sneakers, much less ANYTHING? Lovers of streetwear from all races, places, and socioeconomic backgrounds, that’s who.
Food has a similar purchasing power to streetwear. Food has the power to make us feel things we didn’t know we could feel, to indulge in some greater experience with others.
Of course, we’re familiar with the food hype that was 2020. Whether it was Travis Scott serving Happy Meals at McDonald’s, or Mr. Beast (the Youtube star) launching a nationwide burger chain online using Ghost Kitchens, these two moments represented a larger shift in how the internet is shaping a new world of food.
We’re witnessing technology breathe life into the ways we interact with, discover, and try foods, pointing towards this growing idea:
Food is the new streetwear.
Food is mysterious
Let me frame this up by acknowledging two obvious characteristics that exist in streetwear and also translate to this new food culture: exclusivity and mystery.
Consider Bad Larry Burger Club based in Austin, Texas, where the smash burger pop-up takes pre-orders every Sunday at 12 pm online and fulfills those orders the next day at a random brewery around the city each week.
And the burgers are really damn hard to get. I’ve already struck out twice when trying to pre-order on a Sunday.
And there’s a reason why. Actually, two reasons. First, these are what his smash burgers look like:
Any burger that looks like this demands an audience.
But it’s more than an audience, which leads to my second reason:
Bad Larry is a food cult. He sells out of hundreds of burgers online in seconds.
Bad Larry (for better or worse) has created exclusivity and mystery around his brand, which only intensifies the scarcity of his burgers. The more people learn about this brand and fail to land a pre-order will attract even more who want to try and get it, making it more difficult to get it.
And then you head west to the City of Angels, where there’s Leco Sandwiches, and Carla’s Kitchen are building cult followings of their own.
Leco calls themselves an “underground sandwich club.” There’s no brick-and-mortar; you just need to know where to be. Meanwhile, Carla only announces food drops on their Instagram Stories. If you want to place an order, you have to DM them and confirm your order; you must send the money over Venmo.
The psychology behind this is fascinating.
It fosters an attitude of being in the know with what’s cool, where exclusivity and mystery work hand-in-hand. The fact that something isn’t widely available is great for the food owners. It means they can build common ground with a hyper-loyal community. They can perfect a hero product and scale it from there.
Experiences are king
As a species, we make decisions emotionally and then rationalize our actions with logic.
The best products out there are ones that feed our thirst for experience. Great food is always tied to an experience, and the rise of consumerism in the last century has put fact ideas to the test.
Again, think about Travis Scott. He had McDonald’s drive-thrus overwhelmed for weeks because everyone wanted to be part of an experience. Same with Mr. Beast.
Michael Miraflor, Strategist at Third City Advisory, weighed in on this topic, positing that, “These are indicators of a young modern consumer’s relationships with brands and celebrities. There is as much trust in someone like Travis Scott as there is in McDonald's, so a partnership that feels initially a bit awkward starts to make a lot of sense...”
For others, there’s taking fiction and making it a reality. Comedian and film writer Kevin Smith finally executed this with Mooby’s, a fictional restaurant he created that he brought to life as a pop-up over the last year. You only need to look at Mooby’s tagged photos on their Instagram profile to see how much this experience means to Kevin Smith’s superfans.
These are all-natural extensions of the universe they’ve built around their brands. What’s unique about each example is that pricing is not the unique qualify for scarcity.
The experience is.
Creating a memorable experience is a proper benchmark for determining scarcity. And many restaurants are living up to that with their products.
Make people feel something...
The Rolex of cookies
If something is good enough, there will always be someone willing to pay a premium for it… Like buying a box of cookies for $120.
No, that’s not a typo.
“It’s less about buying a box of cookies for $120 and more about buying into an experience… The cookies taste incredible, and unboxing them is unlike anything else you’ve ever unboxed,” says Matt Jung, CEO of Last Crumb, a cookie company that has quickly made ripples in the DTC space the last month.
“We've all been stuck at home the last 12 months, so treating yourself goes a long way… We don't expect our customers to buy a box of cookies every week, but we know that we’ll be the box of cookies they want again. They won't forget the Last Crumb.”
Since quietly going live four weeks ago, Last Crumb has consistently doubled their email list week-over-week and grown organically to nearly 10,000 followers on Instagram, leveraging influencer giftings from Chrissy Teigan to Zedd.
They announce cookie drops multiple times a month, and the only way to find out about them is by joining their email list.
Each drop sells out in minutes.
But, according to Jung, the secret to their early success isn’t in doing “drops” as an idea. Drops are simply a byproduct of having a fantastic product and experience to share with customers. “First and foremost, we focus on delivering a great customer experience while maintaining our brand integrity. Every decision we make comes from that lens,” adds Jung.
In other words, dropping a product in limited batches doesn’t make it attractive. Making a phenomenal product (that’s hard to get) does. “Drops just allow us to create scarcity around our product. You can’t just buy them anytime you want; you have to wait to catch the next drop,” says Jung.
He calls this “committing to the model,” which fixates on doing three things well:
- Have an incredible customer experience. It’s about taking care of your community.
- Operate with unwavering brand integrity, where you stick to your values.
- Grow sales.
The last one is important, but Jung believes if you’re investing in the first two, the sales will follow suit.
“We know who we are; we want to create the Rolex of cookies.”
That’s got a nice ring to it.
As you craft a beautiful experience, a community begins to emerge, but sometimes the community is built before the product exists.
Take Bar Rollins, for example. What started as an Instagram account about a Wine Bar that’s “Coming Soon” gradually evolved into a natural wine bar that just executed its first pop-up in Charleston, South Carolina, last month.
Run by a duo, Chris and Lizzy Rollins, Bar Rollins is more like a state of mind. They slowly built a community around something they love. And if you know Chris & Lizzy, you know they love their wine.
They love buying it. Drinking it. Talking about it. Holding it. Drinking it. You get the point.
That’s the niche, and over the last few years, they have built what is now an air-tight community around wine culture in Charleston (which happens to be a huge food & beverage destination).
They didn’t know it, but they were building-in-public for fun. They created a persona where everyone in their world associated them with drinking good wine.
And when they hosted their first pop-up in Charleston, it all paid off. They imported a ton of natural wine, made and sold their merch, had a friend cook snacks and sandwiches, and they packed the place out. And sold out of everything that night.
As cliche as it may be, community is everything.
A final commonality between this new world of food culture and streetwear is the almighty collab.
In a literal sense, food and streetwear overlap strongly here. Here’re a few examples:
First, think about when KITH launched their famous KITH Treats in Tokyo, and it BLEW UP. All they did was build a pop-up selling soft-serve ice cream and cereal to their Japanese superfans, and there were lines around the street every single day.
Or how about Action Bronson’s ice cream bar collab with Morgenstern’s? He sold the bars with a pack of merch for over $400.
Any guess what happened?
And they all sold out. Shocker.
The same happened with Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream and Tyler, The Creator. The takeaway is that a good brand understands how to work with hype and capitalize on brand moments with the right person.
Is food having a moment? That feels odd to say, especially when eating food is how we stay alive. The only thing “moment(ary)” about it is how quickly we “woof” a good meal down.
It’s more than a moment. Technology dictates how we interact with, discover, and try new foods. So, sure, this may be an early era where food culture emulates streetwear drops, but in the end, the secret is not in the “drop.” The success lies in how brands focus on delivering exceptional experiences, building thoughtful communities, and operating with brand integrity that’s undeniable.
“I'm personally looking forward to a post-hype world where things like quality and durability are as exciting to modern consumers as scarcity,” adds Miraflor, “...but for now, it's interesting to see food drops take on the same characteristics as sneaker drops. In a way, it felt like throwback sneaker culture, in the pre-bot and manufactured scarcity era, where half the thrill was in the physical hunt for the product.”
That’s something worth waiting in line for.