Popular hospitality-focused Facebook group RVA Dine & Drink has grown from zero to more than 29,000 members since its March 26 launch.
“The group came out of us thinking, ‘What can we do for free to help restaurants market themselves during this time?’” says Kevin Clay, the page’s founder and president of marketing agency Big Spoon Co. “Our clients were hit really hard.”
During the early days of the pandemic, the page’s primary purpose was to highlight restaurants that were offering takeout and delivery. The original page name was RVA Dine – Takeout & Delivery Options.
It wasn't until June 8 around the same time that Virginia entered Phase 2—that the page officially became RVA Dine & Drink.
Since that transition, the page has spurred a bevvy of positive movements, from followers transferring money to unemployed servers’ Venmo accounts to restaurants supporting other restaurants by participating in weekly food swaps.
The page has also, like all social media forums, had its fair share of drama, with commenters arguing about what can and cannot be posted and whether restaurants should even be promoting their business during the pandemic.
Clay says he and the page’s five moderators try to keep the discourse positive, “a rule for a long time was positive posts only,” says Clay.
That tactic didn't sit well with everyone, and there have been a couple of offshoot pages (like RVA Dine – the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly) that have formed as a response to Clay’s positivity rule.
Clay understands the desire to voice your opinion, no matter the tenor. “People need an outlet. They want to be connected and feel heard.”
This need to feel connected even if it means screaming through your keyboard – is a primal urge. “People are social animals, we are not hermits,” says media psychologist Pamela Rutledge.
“What’s happened during the pandemic is we’ve been really cut off from the bulk of social interactions,” she says. “This online platform plays a very valuable role. We are now in a position where everyone is looking to make a meaningful connection, and some people are looking for kindred spirits.”
RVA Dine & Drink has morphed into a highly engaging hybrid page, part hype squad, part chamber of commerce. Business owners post updated hours and daily specials, while happy customers post pictures of their latest foodie finds, and pose queries “Where can I find the best ___?”
Recent shout-outs have included Mantu’s chicken koobideh, Frank’s Ristorante Italiano’s mozzarella sticks, and Moore Street Cafe’s hot mess.
These posts applauding the hard work of chefs, servers, managers and bartenders around the city will sometimes receive hundreds and hundreds of likes. A Dec. 11 post asking servers to share their Venmo accounts so followers could send them money received almost 400 comments.
“When you’re talking about these Facebook groups, you’re allowing people to become emotionally involved in some area they’re passionate about,” Rutledge says.
For Helen Holmes, owner of soul food restaurant Ms. Girlee’s Kitchen, that passion manifested as a restaurant-restaurant food swap. “We opened March 4 and my brother joined the group and started posting all of our specials,” she says. “If it wasn’t for the group I don’t even know if we’d be in business right now.”
Holmes said she came up with the idea for a food swap one day this past fall when she and her team were “hungry!”
“We are always hungry,” she says. “And we don’t want to eat our own food, so we decided to support a small business.”
The Ms. Girlee’s crew has swapped meals with Pie314, Hopcraft Pizza, the Stables at Belmont, Smohk BBQ, Moore Street Cafe and the Pitts BBQ Joint. Once the meals have been swapped, the restaurants share rave reviews about their favorite dishes – Holmes’ post about the Pitts included, “Omg it’s so good I thought the staff was gonna eat the damn boxes.”
“Ultimately it’s to get other customers to support us as well as other restaurants,” she says. “We really depend on our community to help us survive.”
The Pitts’ owner Lisa Ann Peters says that while she’s not as active on the group’s page, she appreciates the attention it’s garnered.
“[Ms. Girlee’s] has a very concentrated amount of momentum on that page, and you know good for them, they’re really consistent with messaging and pictures,” Peters says. “I have to give them credit – I think they’re made geniuses over there.”
There’s something to be said for this practice of lifting up other businesses in a time when restaurants seem to be shuttering daily. The rising tide still lifts all boats, even during a global pandemic.
Holmes, her brother Frank Crump, and another page member, Jennett Cenname, have recently started a trend of highlighting randomly chosen local restaurants each week – they call it the #RVAFoodieMob. They encourage members to patronize these places and post photos and comments about their meals.
“Meaningful connections support our well-being,” Rutledge says. “Now that we are isolated, digital technology creates a new importance and new relevance.”
That’s not to say that humans on these platforms are not also drawn to the dark side. When people are scrolling online and spot a potentially controversial or snarky post, they get sucked in like a moth to light.
“Consider the difference from a biological point of view,” Rutledge says. “Negative posts trigger our flight or fight. It’s why we rubberneck. Anything that is sensational we have to assess and make sure we are safe.”
While these negative posts are initially engaging – and often go viral – ultimately, Rutledge says, it’s the positive content that gets shared the most.
“There’s a level of trust and intimacy in this online environment.”