Is it just us or is every brand, celebrity, influencer, and VC getting into the food and hospitality business? And what’s the deal with Japanese luxury fruit discourse and does that have anything to do with “tomato girl summer?”

You’ve heard “you are what you eat,” but we offer up for your consideration — “you become what you buy” — and we’re being sold a narrative of glorification of basic foods while feasting on perpetual societal malnourishment. Call it a “K-shaped” trend, and it unfolds against the backdrop of local businesses struggling to survive, a lack of affordable healthy food in major cities, and rising eating disorder rates.

Today on Insiders, we’ll investigate why this is happening, how brands and digital media are contributing to it, and what it means when quality foods become an unattainable luxury.

“Experience” Theater: Food are Mere Props in the Restaurant Playhouse

Lately, it feels like every brand under the sun is trying to get a piece of the hospitality pie. Why? Because hospitality creates a space for people to connect and food breeds conversation. 

Luxury brands are acquiring restaurants, Z-list celebrities creating their own brands, beauty brands are racing to partner with fast food companies, and influencers will only show up to an event if there is a cute farmstand or coffee shop they snap a vid.

Let’s look at an old favorite: the Capital One Café. The cafe is a conversation-opener, and lately, it’s been resonating with Gen-Z audiences who are less familiar with banking and more skeptical about large banking institutions. For companies like LVMH, acquiring cafes and restaurants to add to their existing hospitality portfolios, also makes sense from a business standpoint given there is actual operational experience in this sector of business.

We’re starting to see more brands completely outside of food and hospitality using restaurants or cafes to deliver more memorable (and Instagrammable) experiences. 

Already this summer we’ve seen the Summer Fridays Cafe, the Farmacy Beauty Farm Stand, the Hotel Lobby Candle Farmstand (and the Hamptons candle, their newest inspired by “peak-season farmer’s market hauls and manicured hedges”), the Anthropologie Farm Stand, The Cheez-In Diner (from Cheez-It, which is at least a food brand). This is just… bananas.

More recently, brands like Prada, Jacquemus, Gucci, Diptyque, and even Zara(?!) have opened their own cafes or hospitality experiences.

Brands don’t go it alone, and an industry has sprung up to manage the growing desire for these trends that are creating commerce. Agencies like the venerable Spilt Milk Collective are often tapped by fashion and beauty brands to create menus and experiences that are “local, current and connective.” Brands hire an agency to deliver the experience end-to-end; to create exclusive dinner parties where the food is as curated as the guest list, making every bite an Instagrammable moment to be savored… and shared.

Oh, right, don’t forget that this is in service of earned media. While experiential has always been a tool in the marketing toolbox, we’re seeing this boom right now because of the benefit of social amplification, and the long-tail reverberation in the Substack and newsletter ecosystems.

To top it off, customers are willing to pay for experiences themselves. In a world of dupes and resale, first-hand experiences have become a new flex that cannot be counterfeit. As many as 70% of customers in a recent study preferred to spend money on experiences vs. goods, according to VML’s Future 100.

It’s de passé to share an unboxing, but it is very of the moment to share vibes from the Summer Fridays Café.

Justification and Indulgence: Celebrities and Cravings

While hospitality makes us feel welcome, connection and food trigger cravings. A craving is an emotional, often powerful, trigger of desire. Crave SELLS. We’re in the business to sell, and customers are looking for excuses to buy; what a beautiful symbiosis. When marketers create something viral that can be consumed, it justifies a customer’s inherent desires by presenting it as an irresistible, limited-time opportunity that transforms an ordinary choice into a special indulgence.

In the beauty industry, the absolute queen of using food to increase product crave-ability is Hailey Bieber, who inspired trends like glazed donut skin, strawberry makeup, and latte makeup. Food is sensorial, and therefore an easy way to entice someone to buy a product, because it’s something they know. Bieber’s ability to monetize food references taps into Millennials’ and Gen-Z’s trending obsession with snacks—attainable modern indulgences as a reward mechanism for behaviors that are otherwise mundane, conforming, or socially depleting.

As such, Millennial and Gen-Z consumers eat about 10% more snacks daily compared with prior generations. While gorging ourselves on snacks, we’re experiencing increased obesity rates and eating disorder rates. Snacks, and therefore cravings, are inescapable now that consumer goods companies are capitalizing on the trend.

They prey on a psychological effect, known as "justification of indulgence," that leverages the principle of incremental costs. When customers are faced with a seemingly small additional expense, they are more likely to perceive it as a minor upgrade rather than a significant purchase. This is particularly effective when the upgrade is framed as enhancing an experience or satisfying a craving. The small incremental cost feels negligible compared to the perceived value gained, thus making it easier for customers to justify the premium option. This plays on the tendency of individuals to rationalize their desires by focusing on the minimal additional cost, thereby reducing any guilt associated with spending more and increasing overall satisfaction with the purchase.

Food companies and beauty brands have been doing this for years (remember Dr. Pepper Lip Smackers?!), but lately, it feels like we’ve seen a Cambrian explosion of these types of partnerships, however offbeat and bizarre (remember the e.l.f. x Chipotle Palette collab?) 

These items (and their dupes) show up all over TikTok Shop, meaning many people buying these products might be able to buy a Chipotle burrito and a Strawberry lip gloss—but not fresh strawberries—which is kind of depressing.

Status Collabs and Cultural Aesthetics: Fast Food and Luxury Fruit 

Beyond beauty, there is a growing trend of celebrities endorsing fast food and processed foods, driven by nostalgia, pricing accessibility, and the TikTokification of marketing strategies. 

@keith_lee125 profile on TikTok

Creators like Keith Lee have amassed a following through viral food reviews, giving him the power to catapult or condemn a restaurant with a single TikTok, even parlaying his success into popular collaborations with Chipotle and Pizza Hut.

Partnerships like Travis and Jason Kelce with over-processed CPG products and the hyping of fast food brands like Taco Bell, Wingstop, and Domino's on TikTok demonstrate how these endorsements and placements can glamorize and reinforce unhealthy choices, especially amongst those with limited access to nutritious food and food education. Yet these brands are beloved.

Since a large part of fast food’s appeal is convenience and price, record inflation and rising costs of living contribute to fast food and processed snacks often becoming the primary options for affordable food, despite their negative effects on health.

But there’s more to love about fast food other than the price that’s even more dangerous, explored this Dazed piece originally written about fashion but also relevant here.

First, fast food is popular culture, as much as commerce is popular culture. It’s COOL, it’s a status symbol, it’s recognizable, ubiquitous. Who cares that it’s unhealthy: it’s iconic. Which makes it the perfect juxtaposition of a beautiful influencer wearing a full face of gorgeous makeup… with a giant burrito or Big Mac. Hailey Bieber eats Krispy Kreme, so if you eat Krispy Kreme you too can be like Hailey Bieber.

Next, fast food is comfort. When you’re feeling insecure about having less, at least you can eat a Krispy Kreme to make you feel better about yourself. Ultimately, this is what we’re all craving anyway: to be cool or to feel better even if we’re not. We’re not blaming the food; food is just our escape.

Lastly, there’s food couture. Food as fashion aesthetic recently hit peak absurdity with the Loewe meme that designer Jonathan Anderson transformed into an actual purse. The meme, which started out as an honest celebration of an heirloom tomato, was elevated to luxury status after the tweet was quoted and called “so Loewe,” which then prompted Anderson and his ubiquitous it-girl brand to accelerate the production of an already-in-production tomato-shaped purse.

This wasn’t just any tomato that you’d pick up at your local grocery store—this was a bougie heirloom tomato; the kind you’d see at a farm stand in the Hamptons.

This transformation of a gorgeous tomato to a playful meme to a high-end accessory encapsulates the bizarre commodification of everyday items into luxury goods, driven by cultural and influencer trends.

It may signal a new pipeline of content creation and opportunistic fashion aesthetics. Simultaneously, it underscores the value of memeing to drive relevance for a younger audience. 

Image Credit: @real_housewives_of_clapton on Instagram

Let's not forget about the fancy berries. Oh my word, the fancy berry discourse. Oishii strawberries, for example, are marketed as the omakase of berries of fruit. Oishii raised $50MM in VC funding to create the “Omakase” berry. They're cultivated with meticulous care and sold at jaw-dropping prices, all because they’ve been positioned as a luxury item, at luxury prices (sometimes $10 per berry).

Editor's note 7/2/24: Oishii has updated their pricing to $10-$15 per tray of berries or tomatoes.

Then there’s the Erewhon smoothie, probably the most covetable, but attainable, food item of 2024. At $17 each, the Erewhon smoothie is deep into ‘lunacy’ territory as a justifiable purchase, and as such its cost demands social proof, which becomes a social signal. Because of this, an Erewhon collaboration has become the ultimate status-collab for an up-and-coming brand. Due to the relative scarcity of the space for such a collab, it practically screams “You’ve made it!”

When influencers like Hailey Bieber endorse them, these smoothies aren't just drinks—they become social currency. Everyone wants to be seen sipping on a Strawberry Glaze Skin Smoothie because it screams health, wealth, and Instagram-worthy aesthetics. Most recently, brands like Summer Fridays, Kora, and Vacation have been graced with a smoothie collab.

In today's influencer-driven world, food has morphed into a status symbol, thanks to celebrities and influencers who promote it as the latest must-have accessory.

Shareholders, VCs, and Unsustainable Growth

Where there is trend-based growth, venture capitalists rush to find outlier successes. Many are now pouring money into food and beverage startups, often resulting in waste, costly mistakes, and unsustainable growth in an area where margins are already razor-thin. VC funding, and the pressure that comes with it, forces a brand to chase hockey-stick growth through click-bait content, haphazard innovation, and expansion for growth’s sake, overlooking sustainable business models and a long-term vision or identity. This rapid rise and fall in consumer interest and enthusiasm, driven by hype cycles, often leads to a psychological effect known as the "Boomerang Effect."

Pictured: Google Trends for United States searches of ‘Foxtrot Market’, which peaked only when news of their sudden closure trended.

The Boomerang Effect describes the phenomenon where the overexposure to a hyped product or trend initially leads to heightened interest and adoption, but quickly results in fatigue and rejection once the novelty wears off. Consumers, overwhelmed by constant hype and sensationalism, become desensitized and ultimately disinterested. This can cause a sharp decline in engagement and sales, as the product or brand no longer feels special or innovative. The intense initial demand rapidly fades, leaving companies scrambling to maintain relevance and recover from the fallout of unsustainable growth strategies.

Take Foxtrot Market, the once better-for-you retail darling that abruptly ceased operations and filed for bankruptcy this Spring, sending a shock through the CPG industry when it stuck dozens of vendors, mostly small businesses, with unpaid invoices. After raising over $175MM and opening over 30 stores in just over four years, Foxtrot’s downfall illustrates how VCs can be their own worst enemy. When things go sideways it’s often the small, bootstrapped, brands that really take the hit.

The sometimes contentious relationship between a brand and its investors is well-known. Haus, the low-ABV beverage pioneer, had to temporarily suspend operations in 2022 when Constellation Brands pulled out on approximately $10MM of funding to their Series A. Or Dalci’s $400,000 packaging blunder rendering thousands of their gut-healthy brownies unsaleable. 

Mistakes are bound to happen as businesses grow, but mistakes of this magnitude make you question the VC obsession with speed which may lead to overlooking costly errors that ultimately contribute to risk for the consumer, product waste, lost sales, and tone-deaf comms and content.

Lastly, there’s the beverage startup bubble, which seems primed to burst. From Rudy Guliani launching a coffee company to pay his legal debts, to athletes, actors, and musicians investing in non-alc, functional bevs—we’re asking ourselves “How many fun little beverages can we drink?” And while we love trying new drinks as much as the next girl, all this investment and “innovation” feels less like a novel experience and more like we’re aiding and abetting our own exploitation. Where’s the fun in that?

Pictured: a LinkedIn post from Kyle Fitzpatrick of Numerator

It’s not just VC’s though. Its shareholders expect double-digit growth YoY on already behemoth brands. Are the partnerships we mentioned before between beauty, fashion, and CPG just the beginning? Or will Prada apples one day be gracing our grocery store shelves? As the old saying goes “The Taco Bell Hotel is the gateway drug…” 

Have We Lost the Plot?

Food is no longer just food; it's a marketing tool used by luxury houses, celebrities, and media brands that signals the ever-growing economic stratification of our society. Marketing copy is full of words that make you feel something. "Craveability" stirs a sense of scarcity and longing, while the allure of "juicy" and "plump" epitomizes indulgence and overconsumption—a stark contrast between those who have and those who desire.

So this is our context: food as an experience has become increasingly opulent and unattainable, and actual nourishment is harder than ever to find, and more mindless than ever before.

Yet, in these novel contexts, food can be fun, surprising, and delightful—offering a welcome break from the constant noise of doom scrolling. We tolerate this system for the small bursts of dopamine and moments of respite it provides from the world's troubles. By not dwelling on the underlying issues, it's much easier to accept and enjoy them as fleeting pleasures. “Just turn your brain off,” they say.

But if you’re like us, it can be hard to live with. And impossible to ignore.

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