At this point, it happens practically weekly. A video of a food worker or restaurant patron doing something ostensibly (or obviously) bad takes over TikTok, inspiring hearty debate over whether or not the particular behavior was appropriate. Back in December, video of a Chipotle location in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, went viral after user @jayothebarber shared a clip of the establishment in seeming chaos. In the video, which has racked up more than 4 million views, an employee chops meat on an overflowing cutting board and the assembly counter is scattered with bits of corn, cheese, and lettuce that have escaped their stainless-steel containers.
In the comments, some users were quick to jump to the workers’ defense. “Clock in and help clean if you think it’s so easy to clean during a rush,” wrote one user. Even though most commenters tended to agree with that sentiment, others sided with the original poster. “How are y’all mad at the creator,” reads another comment. “We just letting businesses have zero standards now?”
TikTok’s algorithm, which served the video to thousands of viewers who have never been within a thousand miles of Port Saint Lucie, fuels an ongoing war. In the middle of all the viral dance crazes and cringey thirst traps, a near-constant argument on TikTok rages over the expectations of how people should behave in restaurants — both as workers and diners.
Ultimately, there are two, equally vocal ideological camps that emerge in this debate. First, you’ve got the people who are eager to call out what they see as unsafe or unsanitary practices, presenting it as an act of public service. And then you’ve got the folks who, whether because of their own personal experience of working in the industry or just a deep well of empathy, rise to defend workers who are shamed in viral videos.
This delineation can be seen in another recent viral TikTok, in which a Wingstop worker is shamed for using his bare hands to place raw chicken wings into a deep fryer. In the comments under the video, which has since been deleted, many were horrified, arguing that the employee should be fired for daring to touch raw chicken without gloves. (Of course, most TikTokers are not food safety experts; those actually informed on food safety practices were quick to point out that the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code only requires that food-service workers wear gloves while they’re handling “ready-to-eat” foods. Others pointed out that wearing gloves while handling raw meat is a recipe for cross-contamination, and that even in the most high-end establishments, chefs don’t wear gloves while preparing filet mignon and lobster.) There are countless examples just like these, sparking flame wars over workers who eat while on the job, or whether or not showing up at the end of the night to ask for abandoned DoorDash orders for free is a reasonable thing for a human to do.
What is distinct about TikTok, as opposed to Facebook or other social media platforms, is the way in which it encourages people, especially young people, to engage in bad behavior for clout. Meanwhile, TikTok’s algorithm is scarily sophisticated, able to push content to its 800 million users in ways that other platforms have not yet been able to achieve.
TikTok videos also have a shocking propensity to “go IRL” at lightning speed, with impacts well beyond the bounds of video sharing. Viral stunts, like Travis Scott fans blasting his song “Sicko Mode” at McDonald’s drive-thru windows to order the rapper’s McD’s collaboration meal, unwittingly employ fast-food workers in the creation of content for the platform. These clout-grabs run the gamut from silly annoyances, like the Travis Scott trend, to the seriously problematic — last year, a money-saving Starbucks “hack” that involves using an employee ID number on your receipt in an effort to scam discounts went viral, a trend that baristas said was practically “designed to get [them] fired.” (Of course, not just happening in the world of food — TikTok challenges are everywhere. Think back to the “devious licks” challenge from last year, where kids were ripping sinks out of their school bathrooms, or the milk crate challenge, in which thousands of people risked life and limb to prove that they were capable of climbing up a stack of plastic milk crates.)
There’s also a deeply human reason why these videos have such incredible appeal for people on both sides of the argument: We’re all a bunch of messy bitches who love drama. And plenty of us love nothing more than the feeling of superiority that comes with standing on the moral high ground, especially if it means racking up a bunch of likes in the process.
Since the start of the pandemic, working in restaurants has become exponentially more difficult. From an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 to abusive customers and staffing shortages, these workers are struggling, all while being told that they’re “low-skilled” and being paid wages that do not cover their bills. Throw TikTok into that mix, with an unending appetite for content that sometimes involves relentless bullying from strangers, and the picture is pretty troubling.
While TikTok trends may come and go, annoying customers and terrible working conditions can last forever. What if, instead of standing back and filming the deranged “Karen” rants and physical assaults that are perpetrated against these workers, people actually started to intervene while workers are being attacked? Or, even more importantly, perhaps it’s time that we all admit that what is going on with restaurants right now is the result of massive systemic problems like a global supply chain crisis and all the other consequences of late-stage capitalism? Considering that we do not live in a world poised to actually address these issues, we could, at the very least, stop litigating the behavior of a bunch of underpaid 19-year-olds that have been left in charge of a Chipotle.