"I think there's a great discussion to be had here. Flamin' Hot Cheetos seem to be everywhere right now and we're covering a lot of it. It's definitely worth a look into and would make for a great story."
As I sat there taking in Foodbeast's Publisher, Elie Ayrouth's thoughts on the prevalence of Flamin' Hot Cheetos in menu items these days, my immediate reaction was to recoil in disgust and gas face the thought of it into oblivion.
"And Reach, I think you would be great to take lead on this story. Curious to know your take on it!"
Terrific. Mental note: Next time let the disgust show on my face from the jump.
My initial thought on this assignment was to wonder incredulously how Elie could have missed my vehement and dismissive takes on Flamin' Hot Cheetos being cliched and washed. Maybe the volume of my griping wasn't loud enough. I mean, really, weren't people tired of restaurants just throwing Flamin' Hot Cheetos on seemingly every menu item these days? The move has clearly jumped the shark, zooming past the trend that it was touted as a few years ago, right into the cheap gimmick it is now. At least in my eyes. It's the Pitbull and Flo Rida collab of the food world.
But the more I stewed, the more I gained a curiosity for how this red scourge on my timeline and Instagram feed was such a hit. Beyond my own thoughts on the Flamin' Hot Cheeto movement, it's fair to ask, has it really crossed into mainstay territory? And if so, why? Are burritos now meant to be a canvas for it? Does every food item have to be topped with its signature radioactive red? Or are chefs and restaurateurs just mailing it in for a quick buck?
"It's been around forever but only now are people really giving a shit," offered celebrity chef and YouTube personality, Josh Elkin. "You should talk about the fact that, when using them with making food items, the "Hot Cheetos" flavor rarely sticks around and therefore, is just used as color and hypebeast-ness." The term "hypebeast" refers to trendy and overzealous consumers of streetwear, usually in derision, to emphasize that their only interest in the product is due to the hype and cool factor surrounding it. Then perhaps Flamin' Hot Cheetos are the Supreme collaboration of the food world.
"Think of it like this: If you sell dope pizza, and want to try a one off to gain attention, why not make that awesome pizza a Hot Cheetos version? Might be a great way to get people into your business." Elkin had a point. For establishments looking to drum up attention, playing upon the massive draw of anything Flamin' Hot Cheetos related can be the difference between a surefire hit and a mundane — at least on the surface — menu item launch. But is deferring to gimmicks and campiness really the answer?
Aaron Caddel, owner of the popular Mr. Holmes Bakehouse franchise, had a stern yet thoughtful take that touched on how Flamin' Hot Cheetos items are affecting the restaurant industry as a whole. "I really think this points to a larger problem that is destabilizing pride in blue collar work and weakening the food industry as a whole. Countless folks who have dedicated their lives to this craft of executing phenomenal and innovative dishes — from street food to fine dining — are getting clobbered by companies that have identified [Flamin'] Hot Cheetos as the quickest way to exploit their customer, regardless of the innovative substance or execution of the dish. We're seeing people line up for canned nacho cheese on top of their frozen Sysco French fries; throw some [Flamin' Hot] Cheetos onto it and the masses flock. As a business owner, I've been tremendously lucky to have a customer base that has not pressured us into caving to banality, but I recognize that many of my extremely talented chef friends are awestruck by the growing trend of dull-mindedness in the American consumer."
Such a take does spark a longer conversation that can address how this trend may affect minimum wage jobs, can mute the value within culinary ingenuity, and perhaps dumb down the thought process when folks decide on what to consume.
Thomas Pham of Slique Media, a food marketing agency that has clients the likes of the beloved Halal Guys, offered a more democratic take, playing both sides of the polarizing topic. "Sure, people like Flamin' Hot Cheetos too much. I think when hearing about it, it's cliche. However if I saw it on a menu, I'd consider ordering it pending the type of eatery I'm in. Would I use it as a gimmick or selling point for my personal establishment, probably not. But I may recommend it to a restaurant to have as an offering if it tastes great. I think there's still a lot of people that would be willing to try it, especially with the hype surrounding it."
And that very hype is what's been a boon for businesses like Fatima's Grill, a restaurant in Downey, California, where the feature of Flamin' Hot Cheetos in menu items like their Quesarito, has helped them go viral. Owner Ali Elreda gushed, "I feel it's great, a turn around." When I asked if he thinks the trend is now a norm, he responded, "It's a stamp! It's unique! And it's not going anywhere! It brings back childhood cravings."
Thinking about such childhood cravings mentioned by Elreda, I'm transported back to carefree high school days, where a proper snack consisted of a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and a bottle of Surge to get us through classes. It's the comfort of nostalgia that drives so much appeal to trends and what makes retro anything a hot commodity. Often the chase of cool is a roundabout trip that finds ourselves at full circle. Sure everyone is doing anything and everything for the 'Gram these days, and the blushing glow radiated by any Flamin' Hot Cheeto-based item is enough to pique almost any foodie's interest, but what's navigating the trend into mainstay waters is the millennial consumers' comfort in fond memories of the puffed snack. Their purchasing power would also attest to the normalcy of Flamin' Hot Cheetos on menus these days, and the overall demand is the navigator here.
Perhaps the birth of this trend owes its existence to the ingenuity of The Attic on Broadway in Long Beach, California, where owner Steve Massis decided to top their mac and cheese with a healthy dusting of Flamin' Hot Cheetos way back in 2012, a good four years before outlets had deemed the crimson crunch to be a burgeoning trend.
"I think food trends, where we've been in the last few years, are a lot of fun," shared Massis. "People have been having a lot of fun with food and trying new things outside of the box. But if you're going to do it, do it right. Don't ruin it. That's what we get worried with, somebody going somewhere and trying something with Hot Cheetos on there and be like 'Ah, this is disgusting'. Otherwise, I can't see it hurting the business, unless people are coming there and your product isn't good, but if you're bringing people in the door by having fun with your food, then go for it!"
The Flamin' Hot Cheetos scenario that we're at now is six years removed from the virality of The Attic on Broadway's first foray into the incorporation of it on a menu item, two years past the initial crowning of trend status, and seemingly made a home in the realm of normalcy within menus now. Considering such sustained fervor and relevance, it's safe to say that Flamin' Hot Cheetos are here to stay — in your burritos, on your pizzas, and incorporated in pretty much every other food item willing to snag some Instagram love. My feelings be damned.
Chalk it up now as a no frills addition to the host of toppings and ingredients we can church up our favorite dishes with.
Though the topic is still as polarizing as ever, the decision to deem the use of Flamin' Hot Cheetos in restaurant dishes as a menu staple has already been decided by the multitude of consumers licking their fingertips clean of the undoubtedly comforting and gaudy snack.