During shelter-in-place last April, Shane Cheng casually created a Facebook group for friends and family to share updates on local restaurants' offerings and hours.
It was partly out of self-interest — in the early throes of the pandemic, it was hard to figure out which of his favorite spots were still open and when, particularly mom-and-pop eateries with little to no online presence — but it quickly became something much more. One member created a Google map of Bay Area restaurants open for takeout. More people started joining, including restaurant owners, completely through word of mouth, and sharing what they were eating. A grassroots, serious food community was born with an altruistic mission: Support local restaurants.
Bay Area Eats now has 17,600 members who respond within minutes to posts asking for dining recommendations, from their favorite "last-meal-on-earth bowl of noodle soup" in the Bay Area to the best pizza to restaurants serving Lunar New Year and Valentine's Day specials. Whether you're on the hunt for a crepe cake, stinky tofu or fried chicken, the avid food lovers of Bay Area Eats have the answer.
The page reads like a love letter to local restaurants, illustrated with photos of members' recent meals — an enormous calzone oozing cheese, a gorgeous box of masu ikura don, saucy Singaporean chili lobster, boba and popcorn chicken purchased inside a gas station — and short blurbs about the eateries to help give them exposure. Members live all over the Bay Area, so the group's geographic coverage is unusually comprehensive.
"People know when they log onto this group … that what they're going to see is actual people actually eating," Peter Huang, a Mountain View resident and one of the page's moderators, said during a live Q&A the group hosted last Friday. "It's not paid placements. We just try to keep it as organic and natural as possible."
Cheng, a food lover and Millbrae real estate agent, never thought Bay Area Eats would get this big. He eventually asked a friend, Veronica Chan; Huang; and another super-active member to become moderators, but the respectful and positive group mostly makes their job easy. Members by and large follow the group rules (don't do "anything that would get you put in timeout if you were in kindergarten," and no spam, unless it's served with rice) and quickly flag any problematic posts, which the moderators discuss and then vote on whether to delete.
The overarching rule is "give more than you take." Influencers that might be trying to promote themselves more than the restaurant they're posting about or startups looking for clients are pre-vetted with a closer eye.
"The only thing we ask is: Put the restaurant first as the purpose of the post," Cheng said.
Pre-pandemic, Chan went out for food and drinks at least three times a week, forming close friendships with people in the industry. She's the kind of person who plans travel itineraries around meals and documents it all on Instagram. Born and raised and San Francisco, she's watched with heartache in the last 10 months as more and more mom-and-pop restaurants went dark.
But Bay Area Eats gives those restaurants a voice, she said, and the power to reach — for free — thousands of potential customers.
"Local restaurants are incredibly important to me. So many of my friends earn a living, feed their families, put themselves and/or their children through school working for these restaurants," Chan said. "I want to see them not just survive this trying time, but I’d love if they could thrive as well."
Ken Ko is one of Bay Area Eats' most frequent posters. For him, local restaurants are the "bread and butter of any community," places to learn about other cultures and meet people.
"Some businesses are truly under-represented, undervalued, and under-appreciated, so this forum and those who are like-minded help showcase the need to keep our local restaurants going," Ko said. "We all end up learning from each other in one form or another, as well as immediately get a pulse on what's going on out there in the restaurant world."
Standout meals Ko discovered through Bay Area Eats include Taqueria San Bruno and ube desserts from Hula Hoops, a tiki bar in South San Francisco. Chan delighted in trying Tarts de Feybesse, a home-based pastry business, and eating Japanese sandwiches outside Yubu by The Shota in San Francisco with Ko, the chef and general manager. For Lunar New Year, she ordered from S+S Gastro Grub Catering in Oakland, which pivoted to meal delivery during the coronavirus shutdown and often posts to Bay Area Eats.
"Seeing their resilience and drive has been so humbling," she said of the couple who owns the catering business. "I often wonder what I would do if I were in their shoes."
Cheng, for his part, still thinks about the fresh sashimi he picked up from Suruki Supermarket in San Mateo after seeing another member post about it.
"It's a great community," Cheng said. "We have a lot of regulars. I just don't know them in person."
"You're really giving exposure to these places," Yuka Ioroi, who owns Cassava in San Francisco, said during the Q&A. "Some of these are older Asian restaurants that might not have any digital presence. … the next thing they know, all of a sudden they might have a line outside. You can't put any words to a feeling like that."
Last fall, Huang found Dim Sum King in Sunnyvale, which was donating meals to people who had been displaced by the wildfires burning in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He's since become a regular.
"I will always go back to them now whenever I want dim sum," he said. "It's these cool little threads that bind us all together. It's the best power that food brings for all of us."