So maybe the chance to taste the flaky spawn of a doughnut and croissant won’t get you lining up at the crack of dawn. Maybe you’re holding out for a burger nestled between fried ramen noodles. Or perhaps it’s the elusive McRib that moves you.
Whatever flies your foodie flag, it’s hard to deny that Americans love feeling part of something deliciously exclusive, that they clamor to taste trendy, hard-to-get morsels.
“It’s very much getting that badge of honor,” Tanya Steel, editor-in-chief at Epicurious.com, says of recent food crazes that have seen people lined up for hours to get a so-called Cronut or ramen burger. “It’s the trophy mentality. They can brag to their friends and family, and say ‘It’s great, it’s not so great.’ It gives you bragging rights.”
It’s tempting to dismiss the fanaticism as a crazy New York thing. After all, New York is the city that gave us Cronut craziness. Here, people line up in the wee hours to wait for a chance to get one of pastry chef Dominique Ansel’s trademarked (really!) treats. He makes just a few hundred a day and scalpers are known to work the line.
But this is bigger than New York. In Washington, D.C., Georgetown Cupcake often opens with hundreds of customers already waiting. In Portland, Ore., people try to beat the clock at VooDoo Doughnut. In Chicago, you can join the mob at the Doughnut Vault or at Kuma’s Corner, where the hamburgers are named after heavy metal bands. Austin has Franklin Barbecue, Los Angeles has the Kogi Korean taco truck and San Francisco has — no fooling — lines for toast.
So why do we do it?
Scarcity — whether real or manufactured — drives people toward food trends, savvy observers say. On a recent day in Los Angeles, 1,000 people lined up to try to get one of 500 ramen burgers, a Brooklyn-born treat featuring a hamburger cradled between two stacks of fried soup noodles.
“It’s really an old thing from the playbook of marketing,” says Richard Martin, editorial director at Foodrepublic.com. “Do you want to create that limited edition buzz around a product or offer it up to as many people as want it?”
In a world where so much has been tried, tested and exploited on reality TV and elsewhere, hunger for the next new thing also plays big into keeping trends like the Cronut and the ramen burger going.
“We like things that are fleeting. We like to experience what’s new,” says Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief at Food & Wine magazine. “A great steakhouse is just not the same thing as tasting something that has just been created yesterday. ... It’s part of our undying quest for the new.”
American food fads stretch back decades, at least. There was baked brie and spinach dip in the ‘80s, Jell-O molds in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But none of that food existed as a self-conscious part of the culture, as something that people took notice of and discussed. Today, food is part of the culture the way movies or books are.
“Food has become entertainment,” says Martin. “It used to be that people would passively accept things and buy it if it tasted good. But you walk around New York City and you hear people talking about food the way they would talk about news events or movies or art. It’s a big part of the culture now. If you came out with a food item that didn’t have a backstory, it’s probably not going to catch on.”
Part of the difference between now and 1960? Social media. “Word travels and trends travel instantaneously now,” says Russ Parsons, food editor at the Los Angeles Times. “You get listed on a half dozen good Twitter feeds and all of a sudden, there’s 100,000 people who’ve heard about it. Things just go like wild fire these days.”
Parsons should know. Los Angeles may in fact have created the whole trend of social media-tracked food trucks, starting with the Kogi truck, a peripatetic Korean taco vendor that would show up at a different venue each day, tweeting his whereabouts to the über hip.
“Six months before he opened if someone had said ‘People are going to hook up on Facebook and Twitter and we’re going to have 250 people lined up in vacant lots to eat tacos,’ you would have said they were nuts,” Parsons says. “There was a communal notion to it. If you were there, you were in the know, you were part of the in group.”
But food trends trickle down even to those who are not hip. Mass-market mash-ups include Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos (a taco with a shell made from Doritos); Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Double Down (two fried chicken patties cradling bacon and cheese); and Wendy’s pretzel bacon cheeseburger (a pretzel bun). McDonald’s McRib — a pork sandwich that mysteriously disappears and reappears from the chain’s menu — was an early exercise in mass-market scarcity.
And while the Cronut, with its trademarked name and French origins may seem like an elitist food trend, many industry observers regard it as an exercise in democracy, a food that finally brings elevated tastes to the masses.
“Not everyone can participate in higher-end tasting menus,” says Arthur Bovino, executive editor of website The Daily Meal. “But you can afford to get on line for a doughnut or burger or fried chicken. ... You’re then this everyman, you can be an expert in a category of exclusive conversation that’s being had on late night television.”
Maybe. But in some parts of the country, people find it just plain silly.
“It better literally be filled with crack if I’m going to stand in line for four hours at 6 a.m.,” says Scott Gold, a New Orleans-based food writer who says the only thing people in his city wait for is a special crawfish beignet that happens only once a year at Jazz Fest. And even then, you’re only waiting 10 minutes. “Recently I had to get up at 4:45 to get on an airplane. That was to participate in the magic of flight. But for a pastry?”
The big question now, of course, is what comes next. Ominous reports suggest that the Cronut may be losing its mystique. A post in Eater’s New York edition said that at 10 a.m. on a recent day Cronuts were still available and were cheerily being packed up for patrons who hadn’t waited even 10 seconds.