Two years ago, during a regular day at work, graduate student Daniel Beringer hoped the PB&J he’d made at home would be enough to get him through the afternoon. His stomach disagreed. He went to the vending machine, bought a bag of Cheetos, and started snacking. Somewhere between the bag and his mouth, he stopped and looked at the Cheeto in his hand.
It was like a romantic comedy meet-cute where two characters look at each other for the first time and really see the person in front of them. Beringer knew the Cheeto he was holding was special. It was shaped like a man, and could stand on its own two powdered feet. He ran around the lab, telling his coworkers of the discovery as though he’d made a scientific breakthrough.
Frito-Lay, which owns Cheeto, had just finished a “Cheeto Museum” contest where the most exquisitely shaped cheese-puff — in this case, a unicorn — won $50,000 and a permanent home at Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Beringer was curious if there was any other way to turn Cheetos into gold. “I was looking at eBay and there was this thriving Cheeto community,” Beringer said. He gave it an outrageous price — $2,500, buy it now. No one’s going to fucking buy this thing, he thought, putting it up for auction anyway. He once got an offer for $150 and turned it down, countering with $250, never to hear from the buyer again.
“In hindsight, it was a damn good deal,” he said. For the past two years it’s been sitting on his desk in an old jam jar. It’s become somewhat of a workplace mascot; when people visit the lab, he introduces them to the Cheeto man.
Noticing that one thing looks like something else is hard-wired into us as humans; we can’t help seeing faces in whorls of wood or splotchy raindrops on the cement. As children we lay on our backs, relax our minds, and sort clouds into shapes — dogs or swimmers or castles slowly floating through a mirror world in the sky. It only makes sense we’d do the same with food. In particular, images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary have captured the public attention when found in toast, tortillas, pierogis, and even pizza. In 1996, a Tennessee cafe found a cinnamon bun that looked strikingly like Mother Teresa. The business quickly found fame after the bun was featured on The Late Show with David Letterman. The cafe sold Nun Bun merch and visitors could visit the “immaculate conception,” which remained on display for nine years until it was stolen. (The real miracle was that it somehow wasn’t covered in mold by then.)
The findings became so regular and publicized thanks to the internet that, for years, Urban Outfitters sold a sandwich press called the “Grilled Cheesus” that emblazoned the son of God’s portrait on every toast. But it’s not just religious iconography that feels special — any bit of imagery will do. An entire online economy has sprung up around these peculiarly arranged edibles, with uniquely-shaped Cheetos reaching an unlikely status as a coveted collector’s items.
On eBay, you can find hundreds of listings for so-called “rare Cheetos.” “Very rare!” listings caw. “Undeniable!” Would you like to buy a fluffy baby penguin ($849.99) or Flamin’ hot Michael Jackson ($699.99)? Perhaps instead a fetus ($595), a phallus ($500), or a rock ($849.99)? There’s a raygun ($607) if you want one or Ron Jeremy holding his cock ($9,999.99). Cheetos that are sexy or taste spicy or are shaped like Mufasa standing on Pride Rock ($8.50).
“Not to be eaten, just stored as a collectible,” the seller of a Cheeto shaped like a bald eagle sitting on a branch warns ($849.99).
The story of how Cheetos made their way to eBay is a circuitous one but it traces back to Andy Huot, the man behind an Instagram account called @CheeseCurlsofInstagram. Huot is a weight-lifting enthusiast who often watches what he eats but one day in 2013 he had a craving for something crunchy and savory. He bought a bag of Cheetos. That’s when everything started falling into place. First he saw a perfect number seven. Then there was a Loch Ness monster, a Sasquatch, a hammerhead shark, and a T-Rex. “Once you find one, you see them everywhere,” he said.
He wanted to share his discoveries with the world, and so he started an Instagram. Within a few months he was added to one of the app’s “ suggested users” list and started getting thousands of followers a day. At its peak, his account had roughly 44,000 followers. He started an Etsy account to sell prints of his Cheeto photos, and was featured in an Intel commercial in 2016, making about $5,000 from what amounts to a hobby. (He tried putting the group of evolving Cheetos on eBay, but they didn’t sell.)
In 2016, Frito-Lay saw the kind of engagement Cheetos could get on the internet and decided to launch a search for artifacts to add to a “Cheetos Museum.” Contestants posted photos of their Cheetos on social media and uploaded them to the museum’s website. There were weekly $10,000 prizes for a month and one $50,000 grand prize for the best Cheeto shape. With more than 100,000 posts it was “one of the brand’s most successful digital engagement programs of all time,” Ryan Matiyow, senior director of marketing at Frito-Lay, told Marketing Daily.
The contest has been repeated multiple times since to Huot’s chagrin. “I’ve felt like a little minion to them,” he said. While he and other people are excitedly trying to find shapes in their Cheetos, “[Frito-Lay] are the ones profiting in the end.” But the Cheetos Museum contest seemed to put in some people’s minds that in the world of extruded cheese, cool shapes meant money. In 2017, a man put a Cheeto shaped like Harambe on eBay just a few months after the gorilla was shot and killed at the Cincinnati zoo. Bidding started at $11.99.
“This item is one of a kind!” the seller wrote of the Cheeto. “Bag not included.” The Cheeto quickly went viral, as one bidder after another pushed the price into the hundreds and then thousands of dollars. On February 7, 2017 one day after it was listed for sale, the Harambe Cheeto sold for $99,900. The sale was covered in major news outlets and hosts joked about the Cheeto on late night television. Who spends that kind of money on something you can buy in a bag for $1.99?
“Obviously, I don’t think the average person would post a Cheeto for $2,000,” Benjamin Keith, a musician, told me. But he did. In 2018, he listed a unique-looking Cheeto for sale on eBay, describing it as looking like a “squirrel on branches,” “a soldier at war,” or maybe even a gymnast. Seeing a shape in this Cheeto had been an epiphany for him, so why would he pigeon-hole a potential buyer? Maybe they’d have an epiphany of their own.
Other than a couple fake bids, he hasn’t gotten much interest. I asked him if he’d consider lowering the price of the Cheeto at some point; he demurred. (Does a rare Cheeto lose value as it ages or does it increase like a fine, orange-powdered wine?) “As of now I still believe in the value of my product,” he said. The strange free-form shapes made by the Cheeto manufacturing process have value that goes beyond the puffy corn and cheese powder, he explained. “They’re sculpted in a way that’s almost like art,” he said. He’s an artist himself and tries to see the artistry in “anything and everything.”
“I don’t know how Cheetos are made but they’re like snowflakes,” Eric, who works in retail, said. (He didn’t want to use his last name.) In 2019, he put a Cheeto that looked like a fluffed-up cartoon bird for sale on eBay. He looked at other Cheeto listings to see what prices others had sold for in the past, and figured what he had to offer was pretty special. “People are into what they’re into,” Eric said. Plenty of art he doesn’t like has sold for a lot more money — why should he shortchange himself just because the item he’s selling isn’t something he’d ever want to buy? At first he listed it for $5,000, but it didn’t sell. Today, it can be yours for $3,200 or best offer.
Every aspiring Cheeto salesman I talked to (and they were all men) laughed at the thought of ever paying real money for a Cheeto-shaped like anything. No one wants to be the guy who takes the Cheeto market too seriously, but if someone wants to pay them for a weird Cheeto, who are they to complain? Everyone could use the extra cash.
It’s not impossible that they’ll get a payday out of this. One Stranger Things-shaped Cheeto recently sold for $666. But what does it say about a rare Cheeto’s value when one of them sold for a single dollar and a “collectible treasure” of a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto shaped like Mother Teresa holding a baby apparently sold for $1,400?
The whims of the wealthy are so ambiguous that it seems entirely plausible that the child of a billionaire might spend a few thousand dollars on a Cheeto shaped like a kangaroo while the rest of us struggle to pay for healthcare or student loans. Eric has sold a lot of collectables on the website — rookie cards and Transformers toys — but nothing has gone for more than $100 in his recent history. Yet the Cheeto, an item that has no real market for it outside of some bids on eBay, is the one that he’s hoping will bring him a payout.
But how many of these cheetos are actually selling for thousands of dollars, and who, exactly, is doing the buying? It’s the kind of purchase that people might post about with the hashtag #EatTheRich, the over-the-top spending that reminds those of us who are struggling that some people are so financially secure they’re out there spending thousands of dollars on Cheetos, or rooms full of roses, or smoking $40,000 worth of weed every month. (Jimmy Kimmel did a sketch after the Harambe Cheeto sold where he pretended to meet the guy who purchased it, punched him in the face, then ate the Cheeto.) It should break our minds that there are people who have enough wealth to spend it in this way but we’re so saturated with examples of excess that it seems normal, even justifiable, that someone might.
It even makes sense, almost, that someone would spend nearly $100,000 on the Harambe Cheeto. But who did? The Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum sometimes purchases items like the Harambe Cheeto, but they didn’t buy it. Nor did GoldenPalace.com, an online casino that purchased weird viral items as an apparent marketing strategy in the early aughts: Virgin Mary on toast for $28,000; a walking cane haunted by the ghost of the seller’s father for $65,000; even a Cheeto shaped like baby Jesus for a relative steal of $22.50.
“I thought it was something so ridiculous someone might actually buy it. Personally I wouldn’t buy one unless it’s in a bag and I’m going to eat it.”
I tried to contact the Harambe seller with no luck. In the process, I found out that it’s unlikely anyone ever paid that money at all. Chris Astoyani, the seller, told the Los Angeles Timesin 2017 that the winning bidder “backed out of the deal.” eBay buyers aren’t supposed to back out of their bid agreements but the worst punishment they can receive — even after flagrantly breaking this rule multiple times — is an account restriction. Meanwhile, the website lists items as sold with the amount offered by the highest bidder, whether or not payment was received. It’s entirely possible that the Cheetos “sold” for hundreds or thousands of dollars on eBay never resulted in close to that much money exchanging hands, if at all. Many Cheetos marked “sold” and listed for high prices on the site also contained a note that the seller had relisted a similar item. eBay wouldn’t comment, nor did other sellers whose Cheetos had “sold,” on the actual market for these collectables.
Before eBay and Craigslist and the ever-increasing number of internet marketplaces, the only way for collectors to find what they were looking for was to hunt down a treasure. These intrepid individuals would attend swap-meets or put out a call on a listserv about the item they were looking for. If they found what they were looking for at a garage sale or a small-town thrift shop for much less money than it was worth, hallelujah! What a find! It used to be hard to connect people with the weird stuff they were looking for. If it exists today, it’s just a click away.
Other than the museums (real and digital) run by Frito Lay, I’ve never found evidence that anyone out there is actually collecting Cheetos. But when there’s a whole world of people anonymously buying a world of stuff, it feels possible.
Daniel Isaacs, from Tulsa, has logged hundreds clicks on his Cheeto that looks like the Fortnite dancer doing the wiggle dance. (If you turn it upside-down it looks like Bigfoot but that was too generic, not zeitgeisty enough to sell.) Any proceeds from the sale, $500 or best offer, will be donated to the local children’s hospital. He might lower the price; the Cheeto has already been relisted many times with no takers. “I thought it was something so ridiculous someone might actually buy it,” he said. “Personally I wouldn’t buy one unless it’s in a bag and I’m going to eat it.” But if it doesn’t sell? “If nothing else, I’ll take it off eBay and eat it.”
Isaacs is still keeping a lookout for new shapes in his bags. “You never know when you might get one that looks like Donald Trump or something,” he said. He’s not the first one to have this idea — there’s an orange Presidential Cheeto for sale right now on eBay, available for $800. (The price has steadily decreased from $1,000.) “The struggle is real,” the seller wrote, “when I have to resort to selling a Cheeto that looks like Donald Trump.” As of publication, it was still available.