How TikTok food influencer helped a Vegas eatery become national news
Only a month ago, Frank Steele faced the prospect of closing Frankensons — a life’s ambition dashed on the unforgiving rocks of reality. Then Keith Lee showed up — unannounced.
Updated February 24, 2023 - 3:56 pm
This is what life after the near-death of a dream looks like: busy.
It’s shortly past 9 p.m. on a Friday, and already they’re done taking orders at Frankensons pizzeria — two hours before the 11 o’clock closing time listed on its website.
No slacking here: There’s simply too much demand to supply any more customers.
And so its owner, Frank Steele — a tall, stout man with eyes so tired they make you yawn by osmosis — politely turns guests away at the door while working the room with the friendly, yet sizable presence of a grizzly bear maitre d’.
For years Steele told friends and family that one day he’d have his own place. They may have rolled their eyes back then, but goal achieved, he seems determined not to let a lack of sleep or a severe deficit of downtime dim the enthusiasm that brightens his Long Island accent like a fog lamp.
Steele has his work cut out for him right about now: Despite no longer taking any newcomers, the place is still packed, the heat from all the bodies clustered near the counter rivaling that which emanates from the ovens nearby, the line as thick as the facial hair of one customer with a goatee the length of a crowbar.
Turns out the customer is a runner for country star Luke Bryan, who’s in town for his residency at Resorts World.
“Luke Bryan’s team, they came to me and they said, ‘We’ve seen this on TikTok, we gotta try it,’ ” explains the thickly whiskered Patrick Dawson, a Las Vegas resident and founder of the Sin City Beard Coalition.
About that TikTok clip: It changed everything.
Only a month ago, Steele faced the prospect of closing Frankensons just five months after its opening — a life’s ambition dashed on the unforgiving rocks of reality.
The plan was to turn the lights off for good at the end of January if things didn’t change.
This man of recipes thought he had the ideal ingredients for success: a classic Italian sub he’d been perfecting since he was a boy; a deep menu affordable for shallow pockets; an emphasis on quality customer service — Steele makes a point of not only greeting guests but learning their names, where they’re from, what they do. (He asks almost as many questions as the journalist shadowing him on this night).
The one thing he didn’t have?
“We knew we had a great product. We knew our services were great,” Steele says. “The only bad Yelp reviews I had was that we were not open according to our hours on Google — because we just didn’t have the business to stay open that late. We weren’t getting a lot of foot traffic in here. We were barely paying our employees and for the food without having to dig further into our savings.”
And then in late December, his daughter-in-law and employee Summer Ramsey did the restauranteur’s equivalent of a quarterback hurling a Hail Mary pass into an end zone crowded with defenders: She sent an email to a fast-rising Las Vegas TikTok food influencer named Keith Lee, asking him to come check out their spot.
He never responded.
“I was like, ‘He’s probably never coming,’ ” Ramsey recalls.
And then on Jan. 2 — unannounced — he did.
A chicken wing and a prayer
The pause is pregnant … with lemon pepper sauce.
Keith Lee takes a bite of the crispy finger food before him, stares into the camera — and freezes.
“That is one of the best wings I’ve ever had,” he says after sampling one of Frankensons signatures. “This is a 10.”
@keith_lee125 Frankensons Pizzeria Taste test 💕 would you try it ? 💕 #foodcritic ♬ original sound – Keith Lee
A veteran mixed martial arts fighter, the 26-year-old delved into social media food criticism after being released from Bellator MMA in 2021.
He’s since become one of TikTok’s leading food influencers with over 10 million followers — his review of Frankensons has garnered over 40 million views alone.
Even though he can punch and/or kick your face in, Lee’s appeal is that of an easygoing everyman: Acknowledging that he suffers from social anxiety, he possesses an earnest, candid, relatable demeanor in his clips, a tough guy with a palpable tenderness.
His reviews feel honest and devoid of any foodie pretension: He just looks into the camera and tells you how he tastes it.
His take on the Frankensons’ menu, which instantly changed the restaurant’s fortunes, was hardly wholly glowing: “The fries are like a 2; I’m not a fan,” he critiqued after dinging the restaurant’s homemade ranch sauce for tasting overly bitter.
But when he bit into something he liked — which was more often than not — his effusiveness seemed real, convincing.
It totally made you want to take a bite, too.
“Boy, I swear, this is why I started making videos like this,” Lee said in his TikTok review after trying a slice of pepperoni pizza. “It’s places like this that don’t nobody know of.”
That would soon change.
The classic Italian sub that started it all
Really, this can all be traced back to a convenience store sandwich five decades ago.
When Steele was a boy growing up in Long Island, New York, he and a buddy would often go fishing, stopping by a local mom-and-pop shop along the way for bait, tackle and lunch.
“They had a deli in the back, and they made the most amazing classic Italian sub,” he says. “That sub was just, like, so amazing to me. I’ve been chasing that ever since I was a kid.”
Steele’s father owned restaurants, where his son worked as a kid before joining the military and traveling the world later in life, living everywhere from Texas to South Korea.
But he could never find anything that approximated the deliciousness of that beloved boyhood sub — no matter how he tried, no matter where he went.
And so after relocating to Las Vegas in the early ’90s following the end of his armed forces career, Steele sought to recreate that sandwich at a restaurant of his own, eventually saving enough to do so along with help from his son and daughter-in-law.
Finances secured, they began looking for a place in earnest last summer, getting the keys to their store at 8334 S. Maryland Parkway across from Desert Bloom Park on July 14, opening two weeks later on July 28, the day after Steele’s 54th birthday.
They named it Frankensons, and though the restaurant’s logo depicts a Frankenstein-like monster, its handle is really a riff on the phrase “Frank and Sons.”
“People really like the name, they think it’s like a horror-themed restaurant. No,” Steele explains. “I just wanted to do a play on words.”
But the glow of realizing a lifelong ambition soon took a hard right turn into a harsh reality for Steele, who struggled to find customers — it didn’t help matters that the location was the spot of two previously failed pizza joints.
“On a Friday night, if we did $600, that was a good day,” Steele acknowledges. “A pizza joint should be doing about $2,000-$3,000 on a Friday night.
“And that’s very sad,” he continues. “Very sad to see your dreams going down the tube.”
‘This phone is just, like, exploding’
Summer Ramsey had no idea who Keith Lee was.
She’d never even heard of him before a friend told her about the newly popular TikTok star, inspiring her to reach out to Lee.
It was a move posited somewhere between hope and desperation.
“I was like, ‘You know, I’ll try him, because this is our last chance,” she recalls, taking a break from manning the counter and making milkshakes.
It wasn’t without reservations: Steele had looked into going the food influencer route before to boost business, contacting a local candidate only to be told that she required $2,600 to review the place.
And so when Lee came in on a Monday evening out of the blue after paying for his own food to the tune of $86.73, Ramsey could hardly believe it.
“He gets in, I’m like, ‘He kind of looks familiar,’ ” she recalls. “So I went to my Tiktok and I was like, ‘Wait a minute …’ ”
Lee posted his review later that night.
It was a Monday.
Steele was out making a delivery when it detonated on TikTok like a time bomb, conjuring a mushroom cloud of calzones and hamburgers.
“It’s just me and another girl working,” he recalls. “My girl calls me, my worker, and she goes, ‘Frank, get back here, this phone is just, like, exploding. I can’t even make the orders; I can’t stop answering the phone.’
“Come Tuesday morning, we show up, there’s a line literally all the way down the sidewalk and around the building,” he continues, gesticulating like a cop directing traffic. “All the way down.”
They were thoroughly unprepared for the mad rush of orders they’d be deluged with — how could they have been?
“It was just, like, ridiculous,” Steele says. “We didn’t have the food. We didn’t have the staffing. I had to call my vendors and say, ‘Listen, I need help,’ because I needed to get more food in here. And I had to go hire a bunch of people.”
She went from working 10 hours a week — spending as much time playing cards as making pizzas — to logging 107 hours in the first two weeks after Lee’s review hit. (Keith Lee did not respond to interview requests from the Review-Journal.)
“I never worked that much in my life,” she says. “And it was worth it.”
The sign out front apologizes in advance.
“Due to a high volume of customers, our wait times are longer than usual,” it reads, in part. “Please expect a wait of 45 minutes up to 2 hours.”
It’s one of three such notifications currently affixed near the glass entryway of Frankensons, warning customers and food delivery drivers of how long it might take to get their hands on those precious chicken wings.
Turns out success has a learning curve — and it’s steep.
“We’re still going through growing pains,” Steele says. “Do we have enough of this? Do we have enough of that? Did we order this? Did we order that?”
Before Lee’s TikTok review, he had four employees working here.
Now, there are 25 — with plans to hire more.
Thanks to TikTok, Frankensons has become both a national attraction — it’s not uncommon to see tourists with suitcases lined up out front — and national news: Steele says he’s been contacted to appear on both “The Drew Barrymore Show” and “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” but has declined because he’s too busy and, more importantly, he doesn’t want to get emotional on TV.
“They’re gonna ask me very pointed questions about the whole thing,” he predicts, “and I’ll just break down crying.”
There’s no tears presently, just more sandwiches to make.
Steele doesn’t cook anymore, focusing instead on overseeing his suddenly bustling business. He still stays up late every night, though, making Frankensons’ homemade sauces.
Before they get back to work, Ramsey shares a memory, almost as many of which have been made over the last month as pizza pies.
“Want to know the best part?” she asks Steele rhetorically of the unexpected boost in Frankensons’ fortunes thanks to Keith Lee. “Remember I gave you a TED Talk the day before he showed up or something like that?
“I was like, ‘I know we’re not gonna close; I know we’re gonna be successful,’ ” she continues. “I just didn’t know how it was gonna happen.”
Contact Jason Bracelin at email@example.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram.