How Does A Food Go Viral?

The man behind the beloved rainbow bagel shares what it's really like to go viral

"My peers and food critics used to criticize me and say what I was doing was an atrocity. Now, they're all trying to copy my work."

That's Scot Rossillo, owner of Brooklyn's The Bagel Store and mastermind behind the rainbow bagel. You may remember this colorful carb from last year's fateful Business Insider video, but Rossillo has been churning out the now-famed bagels for almost two decades.

"When I started about 18 years ago, the bagel industry was very mundane," Rossillo says. "You'd kind of get the same thing wherever you went. That didn't really compute for me as a creative person. For me, flour and water were my artistic medium. I would make the rainbow bagels as a piece of art and to reduce stress, and they would sell, but not to the extent that you see today. Still, I knew that one day people would see what I see, so I kept developing."

So how did this almost-20-year-old item all of a sudden break the Internet? For that matter, how does any food go viral, and what does it mean for the people behind the scenes.

Whether it's a sugar-swirled Unicorn Frappucino or Dominique Ansel's notorious croissant-doughnut hybrid, the Cronut®, it's hard to pinpoint why something actually takes off. Sources like Forbes and The New Yorker cite simplicity, relatability, humor, shock value and good timing as part of the secret recipe. In the food world, a viral trend has to be visually surprising, intriguing or completely strange. But it's not always predictable. Even though some chefs set out to create purposefully innovative and mind-blowing trends, others might be completely caught off guard when a food starts blowing up.

When Madeleine Murphy, one of the creators behind the unicorn latte from Brooklyn café The End, envisioned a drink based around E3Live blue-green algae, a "miracle ingredient" she discovered during her nutrition studies, she had no idea what was coming. After The New York Times and a local blog wrote up the latte, everything changed.

"It started to spread like wildfire, both in the press and social media world," Murphy says. "It took us by surprise, but we were so happy to have such a fun platform to introduce people to the superpowers of the plant-based world."

Similarly, the creator and owner behind viral milkshake wonder Black Tap never expected his over-the-top creations to become overnight sensations.

"We couldn't believe the response!" Joe Isidori says. "In 48 hours, we were featured on BuzzFeed, and then on the Today show. After that, the phones were ringing off the hook, and we had a line of 300 people waiting to get in."

The main driving factor, both agree, is the prevalence of Instagram, Facebook and other social platforms.

"Social media has 100 percent affected our business," Isidori says.

For Rossillo, it was the Business Insider video of him and his partner, Osiel Escobar, making the rainbow bagels that skyrocketed them to Internet fame. The original video, posted to Insider Food's Facebook page on February 2, 2016, has garnered almost 72 million views and 840,000 shares—and that was only the beginning of the rainbow bagel craze.

Thanks to a few choice Instagram posts, the special bagel began popping up everywhere, racking up more than 30,000 uses of the hashtag #rainbowbagel. Countless publications, from The Washington Post to BuzzFeed, wrote up the trend, and bagel lovers began lining up around the block at The Bagel Store's two Brooklyn locations for a chance to snap a pic and take a coveted bite. The wait could be as long as three hours.

"We were overwhelmed," Rossillo says. "It was just the perfect storm. We were working 18 hours a day, seven days a week to keep up with demand. People were coming from far away with their kids, and I didn't want to let them down, but we would run out every day."

At the peak of success, he and Escobar—the only other person he trusts to make the rainbow bagels—were making up to 800 bagels a day. Still, they weren't willing to cut any corners when it came to the product.

"The bagels can't be rushed or mass-produced in a factory. They have to have the creative influence of the artist using specialized techniques to keep the colors separate and vibrant," Rossillo explains.

"You want your art to be your own, the way you designed it," he continues. "To some people, it's about money, but to me, it's about having my name on every bagel."

Since then, Rossillo has put his name on even more colorful, viral creations, like unicorn, mermaid and even bedazzled bagels with edible glitter. All in all, he has no qualms about feeding the food world's biggest viral trends. Rossillo now has the means to open up a new location of The Bagel Store; expect it in Park Slope as early as next month.

The fame and expansion doesn't come cost free, however.

"I'm no longer at the Bedford Avenue store, and what they're creating there is not the original rainbow bagel," Rossillo says. "That was a family member's store, and I was helping there for quite some time, but they were kind of intrusive on my techniques. I had put in too much time and effort to be cut out of the picture. So, I'm only at the Metropolitan location now, where we're serving the original."

And as The Washington Post notes, for many Brooklynites, the rainbow bagel may serve as a sign of gentrification, inexhaustible virality and the obsession with social media taking over local neighborhoods.

However, when the crowds begin to thin, a positive side of viral food can emerge. Rossillo's story is one of human ambition and relentless perseverance: After nearly 20 years of work on a product, he finally saw the success he'd always hoped for.

"It's rewarding to see your work accepted socially and in the mainstream," he says. "I always watch for that reaction—that wow factor when a kid comes in who's been been waiting a long time to try a rainbow bagel. And adults, too, because every adult is a kid at heart. When you're making other people happy, that's how you achieve true success."

This month, we're going Under the Hood and into the art and science of the culinary world to find the emerging designers, independent farmers and (spoiler) major corporations creating trends from the ground up.

The sheets of colored dough are stacked before being cut, rolled and shaped to form the rainbow bagel.

The rainbow dough is cut into strips for each bagel.

Osiel Escobar, the only employee of creator Scot Rossillo's who knows how to make the rainbow bagels, rolls out the colorful dough.

A tray of rainbow bagels is ready for the oven.

Colorful bagels fresh out of the oven.

Rossillo adds colorful toppings to a rainbow bagel.

The Bagel Store's creations come in a wide variety of customizable colors.

Photos: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table