Starbucks keeps up with TikTok-inspired drinks

Coffee chain trying to keep up with recipes thought up by social media influencers

TikTok is giving Starbucks a taste of its own medicine. 

The chain that turned regular drip coffee into a $5 half-caff, extra whipped cream mocha latte is now laboring to produce dozens of bizarre concoctions dreamed up by the social-media site’s influential stars. 

They include a Triple Caramel Threat––cold brew with caramel syrup, vanilla sweet cold foam blended with dark caramel and caramel drizzle––and a Matcha Pink Drink featuring the chain’s Strawberry Açaí Refreshers Beverage with green tea powder and sweet cold foam added. Their complexity is lengthening lines and driving baristas nuts. 

The Starbucks logo is display on a cup and bag at a Starbucks store in October in San Francisco, California. Recently, social media influencers have been coming up with their own recipes to try at Starbucks.  ( Justin Sullivan/Getty Images / Getty Images)

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"It is a bit exhausting," said Roger Huang, a Starbucks barista in Buffalo, N.Y., who said he takes pride in his ability to pump out what workers call TikTok drinks. 

The drinks treat Starbucks’ menu less like a lineup of drinks and more like a buffet of ingredients to be mixed together in unorthodox ways to create off-menu drinks that may list 10 separate customizations on the side of the cup. 

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The intensively customized beverages center on a Starbucks mainstay––customers’ ability to tailor any drink to their tastes––and take it to the extreme. 

Starbucks says in addition to the beverage options listed on its menu boards, there are 170,000-plus ways baristas can customize beverages. Starbucks this week announced its latest seasonal drinks, including Caramel Brulee Latte, Chestnut Praline Latte and Toasted White Chocolate Mocha. 

Anna Faber, a college student who posts on TikTok under "Annalovescoffee," often promotes her own concoctions to her 107,900 followers. She recently featured one suggested by a barista: a Venti cold brew with caramel syrup and vanilla sweet cream cold foam, apple brown sugar syrup, apple in the foam and cinnamon dolce on top. 

"It was very hard to order," she says in one video, after going through the drive-through, then taking a sip and sharing the long list of ingredients written on the tall cup. Ms. Faber, a 19-year-old at Michigan State University, said she had a free coupon for that drink, but said it would have cost $8 otherwise. 

Social-media users have dubbed their creations the "Starbucks Secret Menu" and have viewed the hashtag "starbuckssecretmenu" on TikTok more than 210 million times. 

A Tik Tok logo displayed on a smartphone.  ( Thiago Prudêncio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images / Getty Images)

Restaurant owners say they don’t always understand the strange concoctions their customers are ordering, but they like the business. Mobile ordering apps have made it easier for customers to add in a bevy of syrups or sauces. 

Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. has had customers ordering the "quesarito," a quesadilla wrapped around one of the chain’s overstuffed burritos. "Even this messy thing, we’ll make it for you," Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung said. 

At Chick-fil-A Inc., fans invented "bowls," a combination of chicken nuggets, fries, several of the chain’s sauces and other menu items thrown into a bowl, then shaken up. Some franchisees have added a "bowl" button on their order-taking systems to accommodate the requests, the company said. 

A view of a Chick-Fil-A restaurant in September in Rohnert Park, California. Customers invented their own bowls featured at the chain. ( Justin Sullivan/Getty Images / Getty Images)

TikTok users have debated the best sauce combinations, including whether to stick with the chain’s signature sauce or add avocado lime ranch dressing, along with sriracha, buffalo and ranch. 

"It’s hard for us to even follow it," Chick-fil-A spokeswoman Carrie Kurlander said. 

Sarah Margaret Sandlin, a 20-year-old Clemson University student, said she is compensated by chains such as Wendy’s Co. and McDonald’s Corp. to make or promote TikTok videos featuring their food. A Wendy’s spokeswoman said the company has provided her with gift cards and food deliveries, but she wasn’t compensated as a paid partner. McDonald’s declined to comment. 

One video from Ms. Sandlin showed a recipe for what she calls a McDonald’s Snickers iced coffee, with chocolate syrup, chocolate caramel syrup, whipped cream and two caramel drizzles added to a large iced coffee. 

Starbucks said it is trying to increase staffing to handle the influx of labor-intensive drinks. It recently released an internal training video detailing what baristas should do when a customer flashes an image of a viral drink or asks for a certain combination of ingredients. Michelle Eisen, a Starbucks barista for 11 years who watched the video, said baristas were told if they recognize the drink they should make it, while those who don’t should try to re-create it with the customer’s help. 

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The drink hacks are colliding against a company policy: Baristas are asked to make customers’ drinks in a set period. The deadline varies by the area, but can be around a minute from the time a customer pulls up to the drive-through window. 

The multiple ingredients are slowing down service, workers said, and deepening challenges for stores already short-staffed. Buffalo-area Starbucks workers, including Ms. Eisen and Mr. Huang, have brought up the labor required by TikTok drinks among other concerns in their push to unionize Starbucks stores in the region. 

Ms. Sandlin, the Clemson University student, orders what she calls a Cookie Dough Frappuccino—which takes a Double Chocolaty Chip Crème Frappuccino, an actual Starbucks drink, but substitutes cinnamon dolce for mocha, and tops it with caramel drizzle and cookie crumble. 

"Some of them will have five pumps of pumpkin or five pumps of vanilla," said Ms. Sandlin. 

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Taylor Rippey, a 28-year-old self-described foodie from Orlando, Fla., said she sometimes gets nervous ordering concoctions she’s seen on TikTok at Starbucks. Workers have occasionally given her weird looks at her lengthy lists of ingredients, she said. 

"But I figure if it’s going to look cool and taste great, then why not?" Ms. Rippey said. Her two current favorite drinks are a Grande Mango Dragonfruit Refresher blended with strawberry purée, along with a Venti Mango Dragonfruit Lemonade Refresher, with a splash of peach juice and floating dragonfruit syrup. 

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal