The cotton candy shake at Black Tap Burgers & Beers is something to behold: The tall glass is filled to the top with bright pink ice cream; wrapped with a thick layer of vanilla frosting and blue and pink chocolate pearls; and crowned with a pile of whipped cream, a large swirled lollipop, rock candy, and of course, heaps of cotton candy.
The decadent carnival creation became an Instagram sensation in 2015, leading to infamously long lines, a cookbook, TV appearances, and plans for new Black Tap locations in Dubai and Singapore. By January 2016, the restaurant was selling about 3,000 milkshakes a week at $15 a pop, amounting to about $45,000 in milkshake sales per week. With thousands of Instagram likes on every post and a slew of copycats, Black Tap’s “crazy shakes” became arguably the most famous milkshakes in the world.
Over the years, restaurant owner Joe Isidori, 40, has told a quaint origin story of how his wife had the idea for a cotton candy shake one morning, and shortly after, the behemoth was created. “It wasn’t my idea; it was my wife’s idea,” Isidori said on ABC News last month in a segment about the milkshakes. “One day, she woke up and she said, go to work. Make me a crazy shake. I did it, and 72 hours later, we went viral on Instagram. It’s a true story, true story, and we’re opening up restaurants all over the world now.”
But that version of the milkshake origin story is now being called into question by a former Black Tap employee who claims that Isidori has essentially wiped her from the creation myth of the pivotal Instagram food trend.
Brittany Stark, 25, Black Tap’s former social media manager, alleges that she’s the real creator of the decadent drinks. Stark, who left the restaurant in summer 2016, says that Isidori has erased her role in the design of the restaurant’s signature shakes — as well as cut her out of lucrative deals that stemmed from the milkshakes’ success, such as Black Tap’s cookbook, which she alleges includes all of her shake recipes without crediting her. Stark provided texts, emails, and time-stamped photos of her process of designing the shakes.
Stark decided to come forward with her story after three Black Tap investors filed a $25 million suit against Isdori for pushing them out of the company, and after he appeared on TV last month claiming that his wife came up with the idea for the shakes. Though Stark is not planning to join the investors’ lawsuit — or pursue one of her own — she told Eater that she wants people to know what happened in the hopes of encouraging other young people entering social media and creative fields to be careful. She alleges that all the hard work she put into Black Tap was gradually erased by Isidori, who she says claimed credit for her work. “To stand by the sidelines and watch a man with power take that away from me, that’s really what bothers me the most,” Stark says.
The restaurant, when presented with all of Stark’s allegations, sent a statement confirming that Stark was a former staffer but denied that she came up with the original idea or recipes. “Brittany and other members of the team collaborated with Joe to finalize the recipes,” the statement says.
Four former employees, including a manager of Black Tap’s Meatpacking District location, confirmed Stark’s account, telling Eater that Stark was the real creator of the crazy shakes. Former employee Debbie Yu — who worked as a shake maker, bartender, and maître d’ at Black Tap from January 2016 to June 2016 — says Stark “conceptualized the idea of the crazy, extravagant milkshakes.” Stark trained staff whenever new shake designs were added to the menu, and some of the shakes still on the menu today — like the “sour power” and the cotton candy shake — are her designs, Yu says. Former Black Tap manager Charlotte Busa also says Stark was the “creative force behind the now-famous shakes.”
Two additional former employees, who asked to remain anonymous, also credit Stark as the creator of the shakes. Several text conversations between Stark and Isidori show her sending her shake designs and photos to him for approval, and a photo time stamped on November 6, 2015, provided to Eater, also shows hand-drawn designs of some of the early crazy shake concepts, including the “cookie shake,” which is still on the menu.
Despite the statement from Black Tap acknowledging Stark’s involvement in finalizing shake recipes, Stark isn’t acknowledged as having any role in developing the shakes in the restaurant’s official cookbook. Professional recipe developer Raquel Pelzel, who worked on Black Tap’s cookbook, Craft Burgers and Crazy Shakes from Black Tap, confirmed to Eater that she worked closely with Stark during the making of the book, though she could not confirm who came up with the recipes originally. But while Pelzel is named in the acknowledgements of the book, which thanks 63 parties, including the “amazing digital influencer family” that promoted the shakes, Stark’s name does not appear in the acknowledgements or anywhere else in the book.
Black Tap opened in March 2015, and originally the restaurant sold just its overstuffed burgers and run-of-the-mill milkshakes. In July of 2015, Isidori hired Stark as a part-time social media manager to help reach a wider dining demographic; he’d met the then-22-year-old while she was an events marketing intern at Chalk Point Kitchen, where he was the opening consulting chef.
Though Isidori has frequently described the invention of the shake as an organic, ad hoc process, Stark alleges that it was a pointed marketing play. She says that Isidori asked her to come up with ways to bring in more female diners and social media influencers. Her first pitch, an Instagram account called “betchesloveburgers,” featuring pictures of women eating burgers, didn’t quite take off (the account is now dead), but the milkshake idea, conceived in the fall of 2015, quickly did. Originally intended to be Instagram-friendly “sculptures” that wouldn’t be served on the regular menu, after public relations firm Bullfrog + Baum started bringing in social media influencers for events, Stark began creating custom shakes for people like Jonathan Cheban, @brunchboys, and Zendaya, she says.
As the photos racked up likes on Instagram, regular diners started showing up wanting to order them, too. In the first month or so, Stark was the only one who could make the shakes, running to the corner store near Black Tap to buy candy for the sporadic diner who wanted one, she says. But within four months of opening, the restaurant was attracting long lines of customers waiting up to three hours for a table, many drawn in by the restaurant’s elaborate shakes. “Fifty-plus people a day were coming in and sticking their phones in my face, pointing to the milkshake and saying, ‘I need this,’ so we decided to add it to our menu,” Isidori told Delish in 2016 about the cotton candy shake.
In October 2015, Black Tap opened a Meatpacking location, and Stark says she bounced between both, churning out milkshakes and training others to make the high demand product. She often worked long days, sometimes starting at 4 a.m. and continuing into the evening on days when the shake appeared on morning shows — commuting from Long Island and occasionally sleeping in the office.
The work was draining, Stark says, but she was proud to see the shakes gain traction and enjoyed feeling like she was a part of Black Tap. Isidori made her feel like a crucial member of the team, Stark says. “You ARE Black Tap,” one of his texts to her reads. At that point, Stark says she was not interested in credit for the shakes’ creation — she wanted to see the restaurant succeed so she could grow with the restaurant’s brand, something that Starks says had been to promised to her by Isidori. “I did them for Black Tap,” Stark says of the milkshakes. But the more that Black Tap grew and expanded, the more she felt pushed aside, she says. She slowly grew to want credit for her work, which Isidori minimized or withheld altogether, she says.
In an appearance on PIX11 in January 2016, Isidori credited Stark with making the first elaborate shake. That same Delish article notes that Isidori worked with Stark to make the first shakes. In an Eater article from early 2016, Isidori says he created the milkshakes with a social media manager, though Stark is not named. But most of Isidori’s other press appearances — like those on The Chew, New York Live, and Good Morning America — do not mention Stark at all, including a segment on ABC News last month.
In one instance, Stark’s own words were directly attributed to Isidori. In a group text conversation between Stark, Isidori, and a media representative for the restaurant, the media rep asked both parties for a quote about the inspiration behind a new St. Patrick’s Day shake, which Stark designed, and Isidori instructed Stark to handle it. “It’s supposed to look like clouds with a rainbow and pot of gold,” Stark said in the text conversation, reviewed by Eater. When the rep asked who to credit as the creator of the shake, Stark says no one answered. Shortly after, an article appeared in Out Traveler highlighting the shake, and Stark’s exact quote is attributed to Isidori, who is also called the shake’s creator in the piece.
Although Stark is mentioned in a few stories, over time Isidori’s story has remained essentially the same: That the initial idea organically came from his wife and that Stark merely assisted with executing his vision.
The issue of credit often becomes tricky in restaurants, where bartenders often don’t receive explicit credit for their creations and head chefs often receive all the credit for menus despite collaborative efforts. Trademarks can apply to recipe names but not to the actual contents of a recipe. (Isidori has, in fact, applied for trademarks for the name “crazy shakes.”) It’s not uncommon for more junior staffers to never get public credit for high-octane food inventions, and it’s also not unprecedented for a publication relations person to assume that Stark, who sometimes acted as Isidori’s assistant, was offering a quote on his behalf. And a cafe in Australia also created outrageous shakes that gained internet popularity, shortly before Black Tap came on the scene.
Credit aside, Stark thought that her contributions would at least be rewarded with a spot at the company, she says. But she says Isidori shut her out of business ventures that resulted from the shakes, too — part of why she ultimately quit in summer 2016.
Stark claims that Isidori shot down her requests for a contract detailing her job position and pay. When Stark transitioned from part-time to full-time employee, she did not receive a raise right away. She requested a raise in early 2016, plus one cent of every shake sold. Isidori did not agree to give her a portion of shake sales but gave her a raise, bumping her salary from $35,000 to $45,000. (These requests were detailed in her exit email from the company, which Eater reviewed.) Stark felt defeated by the interaction, she says. “I was fresh out of college,” she says. “I didn’t really know how to stand up for myself. I trusted [Isidori].”
She also says that she pitched the idea of a shakes-only shop to Isidori, which he initially supported. According to Stark, he took her to look at various spaces in Soho for the endeavor. In a text to Stark on December 1, 2015, Isidori said a shake shop by Black Tap would be open in March. But soon after, Isidori told her that investors weren’t into it, she says. Stark later heard rumors that Isidori was having conversations about a shake shop without her, she says. Though the shake shop hasn’t come into fruition, Stark says hearing that it could be happening without her added to the already growing suspicion that Isidori was shutting her out of the brand she helped to build. She decided to quit. In her exit email, Stark writes that her experience working with Black Tap had been “mentally draining.”
After giving two weeks notice, Stark was finally presented with a contract, she says. It required Stark to sign all of her milkshake designs over to Isidori — if she didn’t sign, she wouldn’t be paid for her last two weeks at the restaurant. She decided not to sign and left immediately; she was paid after a lawyer contacted Isidori. (Eater has reviewed copies of Stark’s lawyer’s letter, as well as the contract asking for ownership of the designs.)
Though Stark moved on to a different job in the restaurant industry, the pain she felt from her time with Isidori resurfaced when Craft Burgers and Crazy Shakes from Black Tap was released in November 2016. It had been in production when she quit the job, and she didn’t find out that the book didn’t credit her at all until she saw it in a Barnes and Noble. “I opened the book, read the credits, and just started crying on the floor,” Stark says. “I came in so many days, helped with the photoshoots, and designed every shake in the cookbook.” Still, the lengthy acknowledgements page didn’t even mention her.
Stark and Isidori have not had any contact since she sent her exit email on June 29, 2016. She says she doesn’t want any money from the company, which continues to expand globally, with a Singapore location on the way. Stark now realizes that she needed a contract in order to protect herself and her work — and that simply trusting an employer’s word isn’t enough. She wishes she’d done more for herself, she says; her primary reason for coming forward now is that she wants other young people to stand up for their ideas and art. “I don’t think young, powerless people should have powerful people take their creative work away from them,” she says. People in similar situations should ask for a contract, keep records of their work, and speak up when necessary, she says. “I was passionate about making people happy by turning food into something beautiful. Once [this process] drained my positive energy, it was time to move on to bigger and better things.”