The night I asked the souvlaki truck on my corner to put gyro meat on top of my feta fries I felt like a god. My partner looked at me in bafflement under the truck’s harsh lights. “You can just do that?” I honestly didn’t know if I could. I was ready for them to say that was impossible, or just that they didn’t want to, and I would have gladly accepted my fries sans gyro. But asking, and then receiving, something you just came up with in your head feels like you’ve entered a secret world of possibilities. And everyone loves a secret.
The menu “hack” has a long history — basically any time you’ve asked for no tomato, you’ve done it. But over the past few decades, the lurid “secret menu” at various fast food restaurants passed by word of mouth, with more and more people becoming aware that In-N-Out’s “animal style” fries or a Chick-fil-A’s strawberry lemonade are “secret” in history only. In recent years, the menu hack has gone into overdrive. Proliferated by YouTube, Instagram, and now TikTok as well as online ordering apps, these hacks are more complicated than ever — asking for two sauces or extra-crispy fries no longer cuts it. Videos detail ways to get cheaper burritos, rainbow layered lattes, and Big Macs at half the normal price.
Some have become so popular that chains have either added the hack to the official menu, or attempted to crack down on an app loophole that could be losing them money. But behind all these hacks are the workers who make them, who say they take up an increasing amount of orders and time. Hack culture has become a behemoth fast food cannot ignore. It looks like the epitome of the axiom “the customer is always right.” It could also be the phrase’s death rattle.
There have always been customers who asked for modifications to their orders. But contemporary hack culture — the kind where you modify your order from the get-go, not when you just take two different sandwiches and mash them together at home — oddly began proliferating because of workers. Across TikTok there are countless videos of baristas whipping up multicolored drinks with cutesy names; numerous Reddit threads chronicle tips and tricks from fast food employees. “I have a huge background in working in fast food and waiting tables. I waited at Denny’s, Applebee’s, Friendly’s and then fast-food places,” says JP Lambiase, co-founder of Hellthy Junk Food, a YouTube and TikTok brand that is publishing an e-book on food hacks. “When you work at a place you’re hacking there.”
However, as more fast food companies launched apps, encouraging customers to join loyalty programs and order specifically through them (as a way to capture personal data), customers were the ones who began hacking. Lambiase says apps are “the ultimate hacker’s dream because [the chains] make mistakes” that are easily exploited by eagle-eyed customers.
While the first hacks were all about creating newer and wilder dishes with the ingredients already in fast food kitchens, apps made it easier not only to order even more outlandish hacks, but to create hacks around price. Many of Lambiase’s hacks exploit how many free sides or extras are available on the app — like getting a pumpkin spice latte for $2.45 (usually it costs around $6) by modifying an iced espresso — that perhaps you couldn’t get if you were to order in person. “If the video goes viral, [hackers are] like their tech support.” Recently, Chipotle did change its app based on a viral TikTok hack that showed customers how to get a burrito for under $4 by ordering a single $3 taco, a $.40 tortilla, getting each topping on the side, and assembling it at home. Now, while customers can still order a single taco in restaurants, they can no longer do so on the app.
Elle, who asked for her last name to be withheld, runs @secretmenudrinks on TikTok, and says she’s been coming up with hacks for more than 15 years, since she was a teenager, and now orders everything on the app. “I was noticing on Starbucks TikToks that people were saying things like, ‘I would be too nervous to order this face to face,’” she says. “I loved the idea of helping other people who love secret menu drinks but were too anxious to try something new.” Lambiase agrees that the best benefit of the app is that it allows you to be anonymous, creating more elaborate orders without holding up a physical line, and perhaps without the embarrassment of saying out loud just how many sides of sour cream or scoops of vanilla powder you want. “Literally, I don’t look at a single person’s face when I order the most disgusting drink at Starbucks.”
In a certain light, these could seem like noble crusades, sticking it to multinational corporations through the thousand tiny cuts of half-price loopholes, and allowing workers to let their own creativity shine. But according to many workers, the proliferation of hacking culture has only made their lives harder, requiring them to know a second menu’s worth of drinks on top of the one they were actually trained on, taking up their time with more elaborate orders, and generally making things more complicated.
“I would say about two-thirds of the drinks I would make would be a hack drink or a TikTok drink,” says Jesse, who asked for his last name to be withheld. He has worked at Starbucks locations in Ohio and New York for just over a year, and says he’s seen the number of orders for these drinks increase while he’s been there, and that the drinks themselves have become more complicated over time. “I have begun to unironically dread seeing younger customers come into the store,” he says.
Aimee Houvenagle, a Starbucks barista in Kentucky, has also seen the customizations grow more common and more complicated. She says about a quarter of the drinks she makes have some sort of customization, and has seen customers grow more entitled to drinks that baristas may never even have heard of before. “One specific situation is when a customer ordered a blended latte with strawberry cold foam (strawberry puree added to cold foam) by a secret menu name, and when I handed it out, they said, ‘That’s not what it looks like’ and showed it to me on their phone.” She had to remake the drink in the middle of a rush, and says more often than not these hack orders bring chaos to her workday because she’s having to learn new recipes on the fly. “It brings me to a screeching halt, trying to figure out what they want, how to make it, actually making it, and more times than not, remaking it, both because I messed up somewhere or because the person sent it back, either because it didn’t look like the pictures they had or because they didn’t like the taste.”
As workers across the service industry continue to unionize, and the issues they face are becoming more and more public, there’s been a growing backlash against hack culture. On September 7 of this year, podcast host Josiah Hughes posted a series of Starbucks hacks from @starbiesdrinkideas on Twitter, with the simple commentary “fyi.” It was a light shitpost; he felt they were emblematic of a certain cringey corner of Facebook and would get a rise out of people, but he said, “I’ve never seen this many violent, graphically homicidal/suicidal comments on Twitter before ... people have told me to kill myself, or that they would kill themselves if they were in line or working at Starbucks when this happened.” People responded saying he should have his drink spat into, that he must hate baristas, and that there is something “deeply sick” about anyone who treats a barista like their personal chef. “The use of something simple like ‘FYI’ was neutral enough for people to completely project all of their rage about the current state of fast food culture.”
The vitriol made its way back to @starbiesdrinkideas, who defended their project on Instagram, posting in an image that they always tip baristas and let other people go ahead of them, and saying in the comments, “I’m sorry to anyone who has ever had someone order a drink from my page (or elsewhere, like the secret Starbucks menu page for example) & been unkind to you/treated you crappy or ANYTHING of the sort.” However, they specified they would not be ending their account: “I love making these and it’s fun. I pay for these drinks just like anyone else & like I said I am never rude.”
This is the attitude most hack creators have toward worker complaints; they are sorry, and obviously shouldn’t be facing death threats, but ultimately, it’s the worker’s job to make what’s ordered. Like @starbiesdrinkideas, Elle says she encourages her viewers to be patient, tip well, and to try to avoid ordering overly complicated things during a rush. She also says she limits her creations to what can be ordered on the app. However, given how much is available for customization on the app, that doesn’t automatically make orders less elaborate.
Lambiase says plainly, “No,” when I ask him if he thinks about how hard these customizations might be for workers. “One [worker] a month might get a guy that does this. And it’s annoying, so they’re very vocal about it,” he speculates. He also echoes the idea that if it’s available in the app, it’s fair game. “If the company allows that to happen, then that’s on the company to decide what they want to do as far as the rules go.” If workers are frustrated, he says, they need to talk to corporate.
Indeed, these hacks ultimately become a labor issue. It would not be so taxing to make a TikTok drink — it may even be a fun creative challenge — if stores were well-staffed, if workers were paid a living wage, if corporations weren’t intent on busting unions, and if customers were patient and understanding when their desires just aren’t possible.
Because the thing about hacks is that it’s not the orders themselves that are the problem, it’s the entire culture of expectations around them — that a drink a stranger literally made up online should be second nature to a server, and that it should take the same amount of time to make as an iced coffee. That it’s no big deal if an order has a dozen different customizations, because the app lets you do it. It’s the divide between whether something is allowed, and whether it’s actually a good idea. “I feel like the true issues are that [customers] don’t want to feel guilty about ordering drinks they know are complicated, and they don’t truly value our labor,” says Houvenagle.
But of course, hacks are a boon to corporations. They drive name recognition, inspire brand loyalty, and essentially do their menu development for them. There’s no need to hire consultants and test kitchen chefs if a recipe is going viral for free on TikTok. So it is in their best interest not to alter these apps unless, like with the Chipotle $3 burrito hack, it may be losing them money. And even then, someone figuring out a cheaper order but coming back more often, or at least constantly posting about the brand on social media, may be worth it overall.
Recently, Starbucks Workers United jokingly retweeted Hughes’ tweet, adding, “We have GOT to get paid more,” and Jesse and Houvenagle both say this is something very much on the union’s radar. “If we’re going to have to keep making drinks like these, the union has our back and is going to make sure we get taken care of and get paid what we deserve,” says Jesse.
The rise in service worker organizing, and the light the pandemic shed on the working conditions in the food industry, have made more people than ever aware that the customer is not always right, and that workers are purposefully understaffed and underpaid so corporate can continue to turn bigger profits. In the end, the change has to come from both workers and customers challenging these corporations — and also from customers rethinking their own relationship to service. “If the modification can be made to the drink, then yeah, you’re ‘allowed to’ order it,” says Jesse. “But I also feel like if you have to justify why you’re ‘allowed’ to order something that ridiculous and that it’s playing ‘by the rules,’ maybe just reconsider the drink recipe in the first place.”
The vibrant works of Marcus Eakers depict exaggerated human experiences that draw influence from surrealism, symbolism, animation, illustration and everything in between.