If you don’t know who Keith Lee is by now, we are envious. The TikTok food critic’s presence in Dallas over the last week-plus has taken over social media feeds and dominated local news headlines. It also caused a little chaos at some of the restaurants he visited.
Big or small screen, newsprint or digital typeface, Instagram or TikTok—it didn’t matter. Creators and journalists could not look away. The Dallas Morning News published at least 10 stories to its website about Lee in less than two weeks, by our count. Eater Dallas summarized each of his nine reviews in a running post that ended at nearly 2,600 words. WFAA, NBC 5, CBS 11, and Fox 4 dispatched TV news crews to the businesses he visited moments after the videos hit TikTok. One business got so busy it couldn’t keep up with demand. A food truck shuttered after a tip-related controversy went viral.
And here we are, adding an essay to the discourse, trying to make sense of it all. This is the “Keith Lee effect,” which can be life-changing for a small business owner. And not always for the best. Just ask the catering company that shares a similar name with that aforementioned food truck; Lee’s fans spent days harassing them.
Lee, an ex-MMA fighter from Las Vegas who became a viral food critic on TikTok, is on a U.S. food tour and recently visited nine restaurants in North Texas. He gained popularity reviewing take-out from locally-owned restaurants for his nearly 16 million TikTok followers.
He rates on a scale of 1 to 10, and he often comments on the restaurant’s service, ease of ordering and pick up, and other meat-and-potatoes functions central to dining out. There appears to be little rhyme or reason why one dish gets an 8.5 while another receives an 8.3. Which is admittedly part of the chaotic, hard-zoomed fun.
Lee is very aware of what his reviews can do for a business. When they’re featured on his TikTok page, customers flock to the restaurant and bring business for days or weeks. The Morning News interviewed Nikki Jackson of Absolutely Edible Cakes in Rowlett shortly after Lee visited. Jackson has been in the business for more than two decades, baking desserts and catering where she can. She told the News he answered her prayers, and there was a line out the door following Lee’s review. Jackson picked up 600 pounds of sweet potatoes so there would be enough pie to go around.
Lee also attempts to bring attention to unique concepts. He strayed from his usual takeout reviews to feature Taste Community Restaurant, a pay-what-you-can restaurant in Fort Worth.
He didn’t eat at or review Taste because you can’t take the food to go, but he was urged by followers to visit. The restaurant opened in 2012 and is owned by Julie and Jeff Williams, a couple whose goal is to tackle food insecurity. Customers experiencing food insecurity can eat here and feel as if they are dining in a normal restaurant. He said it was “one of the dopest restaurants I’ve ever seen” and left them a $4,000 donation.
I visited Taste Community Restaurant in December with a friend out of curiosity. I had the pomegranate glazed chicken and pomegranate tabbouleh. It was delicious, and I wanted to write about my experience but never got around to it. Now that Lee’s featured it, the restaurant is getting a lot more attention, and that’s a good thing.
The Keith Lee Effect is essentially an immediately successful marketing campaign. Restaurants all over North Texas were begging for Lee to visit because they knew what it could do for them. In Houston, one business went from no more than 10 customers a day to more than a hundred after a Lee visit. In an industry as fickle as food, that’s more than enough to restart a struggling business.
It also can overwhelm.
Within two hours of Lee posting his review of Halal Fusionz in Farmers Branch, I drove to the ghost kitchen and placed an order at 6:10 p.m. The ordering system reported a wait of up to 34 minutes as people slowly packed into the tiny storefront.
TV news crews showed up with cameras on their shoulders. Customers began staying in their cars instead of going inside. I gave up after an hour, and I never got my order. (There wasn’t an easy way to cancel the order and the kitchen staff didn’t appear to have time to answer their phones.) My order, 10 days later, is still showing up as “delayed.” There are several bad Google reviews for Halal Fusionz because they couldn’t fulfill every order that was placed, and it looks like more than a week later, they’re still trying to push orders out at a reasonable time.
“This place is not set up for the volume of orders it’s receiving,” read one of the Google reviews.
The Keith Lee Effect can be a temporary curse. There’s no way to prepare for it, and it doesn’t feel sustainable, either. Few restaurants are going to have inventory or staff on hand to feed a flood of customers on a single day; it doesn’t seem like Lee gives them enough of a heads-up before he posts his reviews. It looks as if he orders his food, reviews, meets the owner, and then leaves them to fend for themselves when he posts the video. In an ideal world, he’d give the restaurant a day or two to prepare for the onslaught of customers. (For what it’s worth, it looks like Brunchaholics got a few extra days.)
Lee’s visits also bring the chaotic sort of randomness that only comes when dealing with human beings. Lee left a $4,000 tip with food truck Sweetly Seasoned while it was parked in Garland, which he allegedly asked the owner to share with a barber and a hair braider who were operating in the parking lot. A video surfaced alleging the owner of the food truck didn’t share the money, among other things.
Bad reviews and verbal attacks descended on Sweetly Seasoned. Lee posted a video response to the issue and said, “Sweetly Seasoned has a lot to figure out and I thank God in advance for when that happens.”
As of Thursday, Sweetly Seasoned is permanently closed. And the catering company with a similar name—Seasoned Street Food—spent days fending off trolls.
Lee’s thoughts about the food he eats are absolutely valid. But I’m intrigued by his influence, the ability he has to turn a city’s dining scene upside down and then vanish. He is an influencer who has changed how the masses consume food reviews while applying some basic aspects of journalism to his work. (He remains anonymous when he orders and pays for his own food).
But he operates like a parachute journalist, someone who drops in for a story with a baseline of knowledge and leaves after it’s over. Lee’s reviews were neither good nor bad. He liked a lot of the food he tried while in North Texas, and he’s admitted in the past that he’s just an average dude who likes good food. But I can’t quite put my finger on why it was so unsettling to have him in Dallas. It was almost freaky not knowing where he was going to show up, what he was going to eat, what he was going to say. Most of all, it was nerve-wracking to see how it could affect local restaurants. How do you scale for erratic interest?
I watch and follow a lot of local Dallas food influencers because they often have a pulse on the dining scene. That pulse is quite different from Lee’s. No matter what you think, you can’t deny his power to command attention for truly small local businesses. Out of the nine places he visited, four were brand new to me. Lee’s visit is a reminder that I could always be doing more to find local restaurants and write about more cuisines. Dallas’ dining scene is complicated, and we have a history of prioritizing flashy restaurants over the ones that are foundational to our city. I think Lee helped put that into perspective for a lot of people. Maybe that’s the real Keith Lee effect.
So, thanks, Keith. I hope you had a lovely trip. You’ve stressed me out more than you know.
But there is a message in this for Dallas diners, too. Visit your neighborhood restaurants, the ones we’ve loved for years, the ones we take for granted. Remember that we are the lucky ones in this situation, because Lee missed a lot of gems. He has presumably left Dallas by now. That means it is on us—not a big TikTok star—to keep them alive.