Utah Business

Going viral is good for business.

Nico's Mexican restaurant in Salt Lake City had a viral TikTok video prevent the restaurant from shutting down.

A 3-second TikTok video saved this family restaurant

Nico's Mexican restaurant in Salt Lake City had a viral TikTok video prevent the restaurant from shutting down.

Carlos Cardenas’ 3-second TikTok video, posted to his account @clumzycarlos in early June, not only saved Nico’s Mexican restaurant, his family’s business, from shutting down but brought in enough money to support the family for an entire year, he says. 

The 17-year-old’s post also attracted the interest of 13.5 million viewers, reporters, customers, and influencers from around the world. Cardenas says the exposure, with repostings from influencers, was closer to 50 million views. His original video has received 2.5 million hearts, 18,000 comments, and 10,800 forwards.

The viral video shows Cardenas’ father, Nicholas, tying on an apron, clapping his hands, and getting excited to begin his day in the kitchen of Nico’s Mexican Restaurant, followed by him sitting disconsolately at the end of the day, alone in the dining room, head down. The video is accompanied by Mexican music that “starts out happy and ends sad,” chosen by Cardenas for its appeal, and includes this message: “If you live in Utah, make sure to check out my dad’s restaurant sometime!”

Cardenas, the youngest of four and a high school senior, works four or five days at the family’s Salt Lake Mexican restaurant. He says he always told his dad, “Come on. Let’s try social media.” But his dad would respond, “No, it doesn’t work like that. You can’t just get famous like that.” Nicholas believed in word-of-mouth advertising. For the last 13 years, Nico’s Mexican restaurant has been catering tacos from a truck and serving genuine Mexican food from scratch, and word-of-mouth seemed to work.

Until it didn’t.

During the pandemic, Nico’s was forced to serve customers take-out only, and the restaurant limped along but never pulled out. “We got to a point where it was getting really, really bad,” Cardenas says. His father had invested in some real estate, which he had to sell at a loss to keep the family afloat. The restaurant also had to let all its employees go as it struggled to make ends meet. The next step would be to close down. 

Cardenas says he’s not a social media whiz by a long shot. He has had a couple of social media accounts since he was 15, largely Instagram and Snapchat, which he mostly used to message his friends and post “random videos of funny stuff,” but he didn’t get much traction. Then, during the pandemic, he added TikTok.

Cardenas says he kept picturing a TikTok video to help the restaurant, and he pestered his dad for a month to do it. Finally, one day, Nicholas Cardenas was in “a really good mood,” and that’s the day they filmed the TikTok. The first take was a flop, Cardenas laughs, as he remembers. But they reshot it. Cardenas told his dad to clap and look excited. The second half, or sad portion of the video, was a reality. No acting there. That day was a day like any other, no business and with little hope.

Then, Cardenas recalls how fast things changed. He posted the video and closed up the restaurant. His family kept telling him his phone was “making noise” and vibrating. An hour later, he checked it, and he had about 4,000 likes. “I was like, what the heck?!” He even said to himself, “I don’t want to jinx it, but maybe I will get 10,000 likes.” He went to sleep and woke up to 80,000 likes. And, from there, it exploded. “The next morning, I got 300,000. The morning after that, 600,000. And then, I hit a million four days later,” Cardenas says.

Life got very busy after that, Cardenas says. The restaurant was packed every day, and the family called all hands on deck, with Cardenas’ older siblings, two brothers, and a sister, coming into work, too. Yolanda, Cardenas’ mom, was already working there. They rehired waiters, a cook, and a dishwasher at the family’s Salt Lake Mexican restaurant. 

"People will scroll through TikTok because they're sad or depressed. And they will only see sad or depressed TikToks because that's what they like."

The wait time for an order went from the usual 10 minutes to up to an hour and a half, and people were willing to wait, Cardenas says, in amazement. The line snaked around the building and through the small parking lot. Customers overflowed local parking and parked up to a mile away at the fairgrounds and took the train. Some customers said that they had flown in from as far away as Florida, Texas, California, and other states. Influencers flew in and covered the restaurant on their social media accounts. People sent money from other states to pay for local customers’ meals. Reporters called for interviews. Mexican TV stations called to shoot stories. When out and about, the family was recognized on the street and asked for autographs. Cardenas’ TikTok account catapulted from a few friends to nearly 53,000 followers and 2.3 million likes within days. For Carlos Cardenas, it was somewhat overwhelming, he says.

Cardenas posted a couple more TikTok videos, one of his dad celebrating shirtless in the kitchen, which garnered more than 900,000 likes. When he tried to post something off-topic from the restaurant or his dad, comments flowed in against it. “I got a lot of pain,” he says. “People were like, ‘Why are you using this for yourself? Like, you should be helping your dad.”

What led to all this success, in a mere three seconds? Cardenas believes it’s because it was relatable to other small businesses. And that was his intention. “Don’t worry, don’t give up,” he wanted to tell them. “We all are going through the same thing.”

Cardenas also thinks the music he used played a key part. “People will scroll through TikTok because they’re sad or depressed. And they will only see sad or depressed TikToks because that’s what they like.” He also said the brevity of the video and the hashtags he used helped. But there was something more that drew the followers, Cardenas’ feelings for his dad. “He’s my best friend,” Cardenas says. “He works so hard. And you can see how bad he wants it, like how bad he wants to succeed. That’s why I love him.”

Cardenas adds, “I feel like I’m the hardest working person that I know. Except for my dad. He’s probably the only person that will outwork me like ever.”

Cardenas says it’s tough now. He feels the pressure to keep the marketing going, but he never intended to be a full-time social media marketer. “I’m just a kid.” Several people have offered to help Nico’s with marketing, and the family is considering taking them up on it. Business at Nico’s Mexican restaurant has slowed back down since June, and Cardenas suspects it might be because he has tapered off in posting TikToks. He also thinks maybe some customers came to support them but didn’t like the wait. He wishes they had a bigger restaurant. 

“I mean, at the end of the day, I feel like I’ll do great things in my life that will probably give me some [social media] following,” he says. “If people just want me to upload stuff about the restaurant, then I’ll do it. Because it’s helping my dad. And if my dad’s happy, I’m happy.”

Diana is a seasoned freelance journalist with extensive experience covering business. She has been published in a number of publications with regional and national reach, including The Washington Post, Germantown Gazette, Digital Insurance, Fiscal Note, Meritalk, the Congressional Quarterly, Healthcare Finance, Employee Benefit News and more. Though she now lives in Washington, DC, she lived in Utah once upon a time, where she enjoyed backpacking the High Uintas.