Last year had memorable internet food scandals. There was alarm at Bon Appétit‘s Brad Leone allegedly putting viewers at risk of botulism with the way he cooked on his YouTube series It’s Alive. People blamed severe illnesses and emergency surgeries on the meal kit brand Daily Harvest‘s lentil and leek crumbles. And then there was TikTok‘s “Pink Sauce.”
Invented by a Miami entrepreneur who goes by Chef Pii (pronounced “pea”), Pink Sauce combined the novelty of a colorful condiment and influencer aesthetic to capture the imagination of online foodies. In TikToks, the pink-haired chef slathered the tangy-sweet sauce on fries and chicken — and as the videos blew up in the summer of 2022, orders for $20 bottles of Pink Sauce came rolling in.
That’s how the trouble began.
“It wasn’t like I was making concoctions to kill people, realistically,” Chef Pii tells Rolling Stone. “However, it was too much for me, as a small business. As a person with three employees, it was just a lot.”
Chef Pii had been prepared to fulfill, at most, a “few hundred” orders. As she went viral, however, orders came in by the thousands. Delays in shipping were the least of her headaches. Customers fumed that the plastic Pink Sauce bottles had been smashed or ruptured in the mail. Then people started seeing misprints and errors on the ingredient label. Most worrying, one of the ingredients was milk — yet there were no instructions to refrigerate the sauce, nor was it clear that the sauce could be safely shipped unrefrigerated. These problems compounded into a major backlash against Chef Pii, who tried to address concerns live on TikTok, only to face a barrage of mockery from users who claimed she’d never even heard of the Food and Drug Administration.
“I was a nursing student, you know?” Chef Pii says. “I know what the FDA is. However, food products aren’t FDA-approved, they are FDA-regulated — they go under an FDA standard.” She adds that her live video feed was cut off in a way that allowed others to paint her as uninformed. In a statement to Rolling Stone, the FDA confirms that foods, “in general, are not subject to pre-market approval,” though “food producers are required to follow Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) to help ensure the safety of food.”
Either way, the reputational damage was done, and it seemed as if Pink Sauce would vanish into obscurity like so many other TikTok trends. But Chef Pii found a savior in Dave’s Gourmet, the 30-year-old speciality food company known for Dave’s Insanity Sauce, once distinguished as the world’s hottest. Months after she partnered with Dave’s to reformulate Pink Sauce, change the packaging and produce it in a major manufacturing facility, Chef Pii’s product is available on the Dave’s website, and will be sold in more than 4,000 U.S. Walmart locations through this summer — the one-year anniversary of Chef Pii’s near-downfall.
“I’m ready for chapter 2,” reads the caption on a recent video of Chef Pii grabbing the sauce from a Walmart shelf.
Ironically, it was the controversy that got the attention of Dave’s Gourmet.
“We watch TikTok and [Instagram] closely,” says David Neuman, who has been president of the company since 2021. He explains that Chef Pii’s predicament “immediately sparked a call to action in us — to lend a helping hand as an industry stalwart to a budding foodie and entrepreneur. Clearly, she needed to commercialize her product idea and didn’t have the experience to get this done as quickly as her followers were calling for.”
Neuman describes the venture with Chef Pii as “collaborative but quick.” Even as obituaries were written for her brand, she was working to save it. An important challenge was preserving the pink color, which comes from red dragon fruit. Her dairy elements were swapped out for coconut cream, meaning the sauce is now both gluten-free and vegan — a switch that meant some of Chef Pii’s close friends were able to try it for the first time. The current bottles are glass instead of plastic, for shelf stability, and “hot filled” in a process that sterilizes the product and inside of the container. A “mild preservative” was added “to strengthen the overall safety and stabilize color,” Neuman says. The sauce is bottled in an FDA-registered facility that’s also certified under the Safe Quality Food Program, a rigorous safety auditing service. The FDA took samples from the first production run of the improved Pink Sauce and found no issues with it.
Still, critics die hard. If you visit Chef Pii’s TikTok page today, you’ll see commenters wondering how on earth she’s remained in business, or demanding to know why the sauce appears to come in different shades of pink. Dave’s Gourmet has added a disclaimer to their product page: “The exact color or shade of Pink will always vary slightly from batch to batch due to the natural variation in color of the dragon fruit and other natural spices used to create Pink Sauce.”
For what it’s worth, I ordered my own bottle of Pink Sauce, currently priced at $9.99, and tried it on some chicken wings. The stuff is playful and unusual as advertised: not quite ranch, nor a vinaigrette, nor hot sauce, but triangulated somewhere between all three, with the tiniest hint of tropical fruit. I have a feeling that if you put it out at a barbecue, the hybrid flavor would spark lively debate over its merits (and what to pair it with).
That, certainly, is part of the charm. “I created the Pink Sauce to bring fun to food,” Chef Pii tells Rolling Stone, and she’s glad to be back on track. She’s continuing to share her business journey on TikTok and Instagram, looking toward expansion: educational courses, more sauces, “a seasoning in the works,” and a cookbook that will focus on her approach to the culinary arts as a multicultural chef.
“I feel like I was never canceled, right? There was just a lot of confusion, because there were a lot of unanswered questions,” Chef Pii says. She jokes that the whole ordeal might become a documentary on Netflix. The “behind the scenes” drama would include when FDA representatives paid a visit to Chef Pii’s home after being bombarded with complaints about the original Pink Sauce.
“There was an investigation,” Chef Pii says. “They wanted to know about my process.” But the agency was more helpful than punitive: “They did provide me with certain things to ensure that I don’t run into issues in the future.” She saw them as performing due diligence after her product had attracted an outsized furor. “I think it was a really big annoyance to have so many false claims, so many people calling, making reports,” says Chef Pii, who maintains that no one ever got sick from eating Pink Sauce.
The main lesson she took away is that you have to be prepared to face demand and scrutiny when you go public. “There is a big difference between being a chef and being a food manufacturer,” Chef Pii concludes. “Get a manufacturer, take the liability off of yourself, and the sky is the limit.”
“We built the product not knowing where it would end up,” says David Neuman. “This really has become a business-school case study in how to build a product with a popular influencer and get it into the biggest retailer in the world in less than five months. Walmart reached out to us as they are seeking to be first to market on hot items like Pink Sauce, not last.”
“Maybe in the future, I’ll have a full manufacturing facility, who knows?” Chef Pii says. “Look at Oprah. Oprah got fired from her job and became a billionaire. I’m an Aquarius woman. I have drive and faith, like, out of this world. The way I look at it: okay, the entire world bullied me because I created an amazing, unique product that’s natural. Now I’m going to build and build and build.”
It’s hard to see what would stop her at this point. In an age when we expect someone’s career to crash and burn once the internet turns on them, Chef Pii made a bold gamble that paid off. She stuck to a vision, one already discredited on social media, without cynically pivoting or rebranding herself, and brought it into a national store chain. The taste of that victory must be sweet — and just a little spicy.