For the past month, a chef in Miami has taken over TikTok with its signature product: pink sauce. Carly Pii, using the handle @chef.piiposted a series of videos promoting her homemade condiment, drizzling huge pools of deep magenta dressing atop gyros, fried chicken, fries and tacos.
Pii was notoriously secretive about how her sauce even tastes, and has been spinning the internet’s biggest mystery ever since cinnamon toast shrimp dudeearn themselves internet fame (or disgrace, depending on how you look at it).
Before Pink Sauce, Pii had less than 1,000 followers on TikTok, but now she has over 80,000 followers and 3 million likes. For anyone selling a product on TikTok, going viral may seem like the dream, but for this TikToker, it has become more of a nightmare.
“We didn’t get a chance like other small businesses to go through trial and error, to learn from and recover from our mistakes,” Pii said in a statement. live video last night, streaming on her TikTok and YouTube. “We didn’t have that chance because we exploded so quickly. We went viral so quickly.”
A recipe for disaster
“What would you do if you were in my shoes?” Pii said in her live video. “Do you just want to crawl in the corner and hide?”
Pii, a single mother with two children, says she has been working as a private chef for four years. She posted dozens for TikTok YouTube videos between 2018 and 2020 ranging from mukbang videos to weight loss vlogs, in which she followed fad diets with questionable nutritional value. The pink sauce debacle started about a month ago, when Pii shared her homemade vibrant pink concoction on her tiny TikTok account. As the chef quickly gained millions of views on the platform, much faster than her longstanding YouTube channel, she made the decision to bottle and sell pink sauce for $20 a bottle.
Price aside, her new followers noticed that some key details were missing: what does it taste like, what is it made of, and why is it pink? She even praised that it was supposed health benefits without revealing the ingredients.
“Honestly, it has its own taste,” said Pii on TikTok. “If you want to taste it, buy it.”
The mystery has entranced TikTokers, with the hashtag #pinksauce garnering over 80 million views. Many TikTokers wanted to root for Pii and see a black female maker succeed — but the sauce rollout was so chaotic that it became difficult for her burgeoning audience to give her the benefit of the doubt.
As she prepared to list pink sauce for sale on her website, she still wouldn’t reveal the source of the colorful hue — and to make things even weirder, viewers noted that in every video she posted, the shade and consistency of the sauce seemed to change.
“The color didn’t change, just the lighting,” she said said in another TikTok. She later explained in her live video that the brighter pink sauce from her earlier videos was a prototype, not the product she sent in (make that what you will).
When Pii finally revealed the ingredients of her pink sauce before putting it up for sale, we were left with more questions than answers. According to an graphic on its website, the sauce got its pink color from dragon fruit, also called pitaya, which grows naturally with a deep magenta pigment. While the fruit has a mild flavor, some testers described the sauce as ranch sweet, which makes sense given the rest of the ingredients in her image: sunflower oil, honey, chili, and garlic.
But then we come to the nutrition label. TikTokers pointed out that the nutrition facts just don’t add up – if there were 444 one tablespoon servings in the bottle with 90 calories each, then there would be almost 40,000 calories in the bottle, which doesn’t make sense mathematically.
“Our nutrition facts label had an error and now they are trying to take it and say the nutrition is adulterated because there is a typo,” Pii told the Daily Point. “Nobody gets a bottle with the screwed up label. We had to redo almost everything. But business is business.”
But portion size wasn’t the only issue. Aside from the misspelling of “vinegar,” the nutrition label says the product — which is sold unrefrigerated with no instructions on how to store it — contains milk. Again, she didn’t make it clear until she made her live video that she apparently uses dried milk and pitaya, which are shelf-stable.
The most dramatic moment in the pink sauce story came after the first shipments of pink sauce were delivered to about two weeks ago packaging that looks like a plastic bag. And yes, the pink sauce exploded along the way, creating a smelly mess.
Chef Piic recognized damaged packages earlier this week and said only 50 customers received the poorly packaged items. She said she sends a new sauce to every affected customer who reaches out to her, and now the shipments are delivered in Boxes (which are bright pink, of course).
The difficult terrain of creative food companies
After exploding packageswrong nutrition labels and general confusion about what people even eat, Chef Pii is the “main character” of the internet these days, which is usually not a good thing.
“This is a small business that just moves really, really fast,” Chef Pii said in a… apology TikTok.
Going viral on TikTok has become so normalized now that pink sauce’s temporary cultural ubiquity doesn’t make it interesting. But this very public breakdown of a maker-run attempt at a food company reflects the bigger problems of both food startups and maker products.
At one point, the story of the pink sauce went beyond what Pii could control. A meme account with more than 100,000 Twitter followers, they echoed a meme of a hospital IV photo, captioning “DO NOT EAT TIKTOK’S PINK SAUCE.” Such messages inadvertently led to rumors that people had gone to the hospital because of her sauce, but we haven’t seen any evidence to confirm it’s true. A user posted a video on TikTok (their only upload) claiming to be in the hospital after eating the product, but sure naira has been unable to verify these claims.
With questionable information spreading about TikTok like a game of telephone, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction – but it’s undeniably true that Pii made some mistakes. She was blamed for printing incorrect nutrition labels and accidentally sending pink sauce in a package causing it to explode in transit. But is she an elaborate scammer, or is she a budding entrepreneur who makes some big, public mistakes and then falls victim to the dark human desire to submerge a regular victim until they’re gone from the internet? Would the internet be so upset if a white man was behind the pink sauce? Who can say.
The Pink Sauce Panic isn’t the first social media snafu of its kind. Earlier this year, a $25 homemade “sunflower soup” also went viral on TikTok to… pretty mixed reviews. Now the TikTok account of the sunflower soup maker appears to have been deleted.
It makes sense that people would be so wary of products like pink sauce, when even startups backed by Bobby Flay and Gwyneth Paltrow have suffered the dire consequences that can come with selling food.
Daily Harvest, a plant-based meal delivery service worth over $1 billionrecently recalled its French lentil and leek crumbs product after hundreds of customers reported serious illness after eating it. Luke Pearson, an influencer who received a PR package from the company, had to be gallbladder removed after 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 problems and hospital visits since eating the lentils. Several customers on Reddit reported similar symptomssend them to the ER.
“It really feels like Theranos. Where is their food made?? The farmers make the ingredients, but who REALLY MAKES AND PACKAGES THE FOOD?? a customer wrote on Reddit. This week, Daily Harvest announced that tara flour – which they say isn’t in any of their other dishes – caused the problem.
Even if a startup doesn’t send people to the hospital, one wrong step could cause irreparable harm to the company (and innocent consumers), making it even harder to run businesses around home-cooked food.
Last year, Andreessen Horowitz led the $20 million Series A round for Shef, a marketplace for home cooks. Shef is especially popular with customers from other countries eager to enjoy the taste of home from a chef who shares their heritage. Despite Shef guiding home cooks through a 150-step onboarding process, Shef must resolve the legal issues at play with their business. Each state has different cottage food laws, which regulate the sale of homemade food. In states like California, the intricacies of the law can even range as far as the district. Castiron, an e-commerce platform for independent chefs, also raised venture capital last year. Castiron came into being as many states have done made it easier in the pandemic era to legally run independent food businesses, but the platform still needs to make sure its partners follow their local laws.
Small food companies are even more challenging to operate as an independent maker, as TikTokers generally don’t have the luxury of venture financing to help them wade through such a tricky legal and ethical territory. Some big social stars like MrBeast, Emma Chamberlainand the green brothers have launched their own haunted kitchens and coffee businesses, but these makers are established enough to have the resources to properly launch such businesses. An unknown chef in Miami is not that reliable.
Even if you remove the element of selling a product that people put in their actual bodies, we’ve seen some pretty memorable influencer business blowups on social media. Think Caroline Calloway’s mason jar crisis? Now startups like Cobalt and Pietra are taking advantage by helping makers launch their own products, but alas, Calloway’s audience disputes require more than just a business partner to solve.
Despite the targeted online vitriol, Pii isn’t giving up. She said the product is lab tested, made in a facility and follows FDA standards. Once it’s over, she wants to try putting the product in stores. She also said on her account that she shipped more than a thousand orders this week.
So, what’s the moral of the story here? Maybe artificial food coloring isn’t so bad after all.