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Cheeto Fingers Go Upscale at Pop-Up Restaurant in Tribeca

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Tacos with Flamin' Hot Cheetos were part of the menu at The Spotted Cheetah, a pop-up restaurant in New York.
Tacos with Flamin' Hot Cheetos were part of the menu at The Spotted Cheetah, a pop-up restaurant in New York. Credit: Megan Graham

Cheeto fingers don't make for the sexiest Instagram posts.

So what made the pop-up restaurant dedicated to the nearly 70-year-old junk food so appetizing for social media?

Consider cuisine that was intended to be Cheeto-inspired but not too much, decor that was -- despite everything -- "not too cheesy," and even a reported visit from Tribeca neighbor Mariah Carey. (We can confirm she does indeed live around the block, and could be spotted blowing a kiss to fans as she exited her apartment Thursday evening.)

We visited The Spotted Cheetah, the pop-up restaurant from Frito-Lay's Cheetos brand inside Distilled N.Y. in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood, on the final night of its three-day run. Cheeto-laced recipes by celebrity chef Anne Burrell included Flamin' Hot limon chicken tacos, Cheetos Sweetos Crusted Cheesecake and Cheetos meatballs.

Chester the Cheetah figured in the decorations.
Chester the Cheetah figured in the decorations. Credit: Megan Graham

The decor, which featured a painting of Chester Cheetah in a tux relaxing in an armchair, a Cheeto tree and custom wallpaper, was apparently charming enough that a rabid fan smuggled one wall piece out to take home. Near the bar, digital video production shop We Fly Coach ran an installation using a sort of real-time virtual reality display of Chester Cheetah, operated by a team in another room.

Frito-Lay worked with its consumer engagement agency of record, Omnicom Group's The Marketing Arm, and Ketchum on the campaign, which included Snap filters and other social and digital efforts.

Leo Santos, VP-creative at The Marketing Arm, says the Cheetos brand today caters to millennial families. And while snack brands are rethinking how they sell to the changing, often more health-conscious tastes of that group, Cheetos is appealing to unapologetic snackers with efforts like the "Cheetos Museum," which celebrates puffs with uncanny resemblances to other objects or people.

The menu was perhaps surprisingly robust.
The menu was perhaps surprisingly robust. Credit: Megan Graham

"This has been kind of the confluence of Cheetos fans," Santos says. The pop-up had 330 reserved parties, and more than 1,000 people on the waitlist, he said. Thursday night, however, walk-in parties were having luck getting in with a short wait.

Santos says the whole thing was more than a stunt -- it was meant to provide a "legitimate restaurant experience," he said

So how did it stack up?

After sampling the meatballs, the fried pickles and the mac and cheese, Jordan Elrod, who said she picks up bags at the bodega for a late-night snack, and Joseph Vatter, both of New York, said the spread exceeded expectations.

Elrod said the place was "kitschy," but that "the food was better than I thought it would be."

Jennifer Gutierrez, also of New York, hadn't swung a reservation but scored a seat at the bar Thursday night. She was mid-meatball and already documenting her experience on social media.

Maybe the grub wasn't life-changing. But it was "totally" worth it for the Instagram likes, she said.