David Shifren likes Cheetos. No, David Shifren really, really, really loves Cheetos. On a Thursday night, standing on the sidewalk in Tribeca, the 37-year-old lawyer was wearing an orange T-shirt, a cheetah-print hat, and a cheetah-print tail—proof of his all-consuming passion for what he described as “cheesy, crunchy deliciousness.”
He’d just emerged from the Spotted Cheetah, the Cheetos-sponsored restaurant that was finishing out the final night of its three-day run as a popup this week. With a comfort-food menu developed by Food Network personality Anne Burrell, the Spotted Cheetah was serving Cheetos-crusted fried pickles, spicy Cheetos nachos, white cheddar Mac ‘n’ Cheetos, “dangerously cheesy” meatballs, and Cheetos Sweetos crusted cheesecake. When news broke of the popup’s existence, the online reservation system filled up almost instantly, with 1,000 people rumored to be on a wait list.
“One of the happiest days of my life was when Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came out” in 1991, Shifren said. “I like spicy, and I like cheese, and it was the perfect blend. It became a running joke about how I always have orange fingers.” He displayed his fingers. They were, indeed, dusted with orange.
He had managed to book tables for both Wednesday and Thursday. “I jumped on it,” he said, then invited me to take the empty seat at his four-top. I declined. After all, I kept seeing random people showing up without reservations, and getting in after brief waiting periods. Shay Mitchell, a star of the TV series Pretty Little Liars, showed up, got a table, and waltzed back out 15 minutes later. The Cheetos frenzy might have its limits; surely I could find a spot at the bar later on.
So: This is the popup restaurant in 2017. Six years ago the culinary avant-garde realized that the format—lasting as little as one evening or as long as a few months—offered ambitious chefs the opportunity to showcase their abilities without the financial commitment of a full-on restaurant. Today, we have this endeavor: An expensive, complex marketing ploy that, at the very same time, expresses a deep appreciation for, and by, die-hard fans of that crunchy, powdery, two-inch-long puff of extruded cornmeal.
It was inspired, its publicity team told me, by how cooks, professional and amateur alike, were deploying Cheetos in their cooking. In Los Angeles, you can get a Cheetos-and-poke burrito or corn-on-the-cob with Cheetos, and in New Jersey, a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos bagel smeared with cream cheese and yet more Cheetos. If that’s not enough, here’s 35 more ways to get more Cheetos into your food.
The project came together quickly: The domain name TheSpottedCheetah.com was registered on June 9, and chef Burrell, who’d previously worked with Cheetos parent PepsiCo on a Super Bowl–inspired “Game Day Grub Match,” was brought on five or six weeks before the popup opened.
The recipe development took place at Burrell’s Brooklyn restaurant, Phil & Anne’s Good Time Lounge, which opened this spring. “At first, I didn’t realize how many flavors of Cheetos there were. In addition to classic and Flamin’ Hot, there are XXtra Flamin’ Hot, Chipotle Limón, Chipotle Ranch, and reduced-fat, among others. “So when boxes and boxes and boxes of Cheetos started arriving at the restaurant, it got my mind percolating.”
“Even as a kid, when I would get that snack pack of Cheetos in my lunch, it was always exciting,” Burrell explained by phone. “They’re so sort of solid and compact and then an intensely cheesy flavor. I have always loved the texture of them. That, to me, I was like: Ooh, we can do a lot with this kind of stuff!”
To my surprise, not only had Burrell never cooked a popup before—she’d never been to one either. But, she noted, Pepsi took care of enough details to make this an easy one. In particular, she cited the decorations—orange carpets, a portrait of mascot Chester Cheetah over the bar, orange toilet paper with paw prints in the bathrooms—that the company installed in Distilled, the normally rustic, New American pub that PepsiCo bought out for the week (for an undisclosed figure). And once she developed the menu, she only had to spend a single night at the Spotted Cheetah; she appeared for the opening on Tuesday, which attracted a visit from Mariah Carey.
Also waiting for a table at the Spotted Cheetah was Matthew Silverstein, the director of operations at the Beijing-street-food eatery Mr. Bing. He said that popups remain a vital means for small restaurants to launch themselves without a lot of capital. “It’s awesome for a restaurant, because it’s a really cheap build-out, the space is there, no rent, and you just go there for a couple of days and get people excited,” he said Silverstein.
Now at UrbanSpace Vanderbilt, Mr. Bing will be opening new locations at Seventh Avenue and 28th Street and on St. Marks Place at Avenue A—both as popups. “It’s exciting. You just put so much effort into this one short thing, and you’re just worried about pulling someone in for three days,” he said. “You’re not worried about what you’re gonna do in a year, two years, so all the focus is there. It really drums up a lot of interest.”
Even so, as I stood outside the restaurant, I kept asking myself: Who does this whole thing benefit? As Burrell told me, “Cheetos are almost like a cult. People who love Cheetos looooove Cheetos. It’s not like, ah, I could give or take a Cheeto. People that are Cheetos people are really Cheetos people.” So, Cheetos fans who could make it in were predestined to love it. In fact, if I heard any complaints from diners, it’s that there weren’t enough Cheetos in the food, even though every dish contained Cheetos.
For those true fanatics, they should head to Burrell’s Brooklyn restaurant. Starting Monday and continuing through Labor Day, Phil & Anne’s will be serving four of her Cheetos dishes: the fried pickles, her fried green tomatoes with corn and tomato-arugula salad, the Flamin’ Hot Limón Chicken Tacos, and the Flamin’ Hot and White Cheddar Mac n’ Cheetos. Given the excitement over the popup, maybe she’ll find an entirely new clientele.
Pepsi currently has no plans for more Cheetos popups, but that doesn’t mean this kind of mashup is over. My prediction for the next one: French fries in milkshakes. The trend began with fans dipping their fries in Wendy’s Frostys; now, according to Bon Appétit, serious chefs are serving up their own renditions. If American capitalism works its magic, you can expect to see a Wendy’s-branded fries-and-Frosty popup stand at the beach next summer.