What's happening in Fort Wayne's food scene during COVID-19? Ask 2GoFW

If you’re looking for suggestions on how to support local restaurants, bars, and breweries during COVID-19, why not ask 17,000 of your closest friends?

That’s the spirit of 2GoFW, a community Facebook-group-turned-local-food-movement picking up speed in the Summit City, transforming a bad situation into an opportunity to rally behind the city’s food and drink scene.

Consider it a local, grassroots precursor to the #GreatAmericanTakeout movement that swept the nation Tuesday.

2GoFW's Facebook page.

The name 2GoFW is a nod to a State directive from Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, which closed restaurants and bars to patrons until March 31, restricting their service to carry out only.

Within a matter of six days, 2GoFW's membership skyrocketed to 17,000 and counting, with residents hungry to keep their favorite establishments afloat. 

Scroll through the posts, and you’ll find everything from questions about where to find the best to-go tacos, to mouth-watering photos of pizzas and burgers, to discussions about limiting the use of plastic silverware in takeout orders, and tips on which establishments are still offering service, fundraisers, and even special COVID-19 carry out menus (thank you, Joseph Decius).

What you’ll also find are heartfelt and vulnerable posts from area restaurant owners and staff, pouring out their thanks to the community for showing up in a time of need or announcing how their hours and processes are evolving as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds.

That’s because 2GoFW actually started as the result of different, private Facebook group specifically created for area restaurant workers and suppliers as they navigate this unusual time.

On Sunday, March 15, Katie Jo, Marketing Manager for Junk Ditch Brewing Company, sent a message to a handful of Fort Wayne area restaurant leaders on Instagram.

Katie has a lot of contacts in the industry from working for various establishments. When she was slinging hot dogs at Bravas about four years ago, she started the community positivity movement, Slingin’ Sunshine, on Instagram and has since become a fixture in the local food scene.

Katie Jo, creator of Slingin' Sunshine.

As her Instagram message thread grew, the group decided to move the conversation to a private Facebook page so more people could join.

As COVID-19 updates and restrictions kept rolling out all week, the Facebook page provided industry workers with a way to communicate (and stay sane) as they made gut-wrenching calls about cutting back on staff, menus, and hours.

Mary Corinne “MC” Lowenstein-DeGood of Hop River Brewing Company joined the movement early on, and helped host a conference call for members on March 16. That’s where the hashtag #2GoFW began, as well as the public Facebook group later that night.

Amanda Wendt, Mary Corinne Lowenstein-DeGood, Zach Croy, and Kevin Debs of Hop River Brewing Company.

“We all realized there were so many unknowns, and so being able to quickly connect to people in a similar situation was so important and needed,” MC says. “From there, the public group came about because if we, as industry leaders, had questions, we knew that they did, too.”

As Social Media and Marketing Manager for Hop River, MC took over 2GoFW’s Facebook page and added other area restaurant owners to help.

Krystal Vega, owner of Zinnia’s Bakehouse in downtown Fort Wayne, reached out, as did the owners of Ambrosia Orchard Cidery & Meadery, Edison Bendor and Blanca Rosa. MC also recruited her friend Jade Kelsey to assist with managing the page.

But while the 5-person admin team had a lot of collective experience using social media for business, a few things about 2GoFW surprised them. 

First, the group’s membership grew organically by thousands of members each day.

Another unintended, but delightful surprise was that members started creating resources of their own as a result of the page, Vega says.

For instance, 2GoFW members started a shared spreadsheet of local restaurants that are open for takeout orders, updating it as new hours, closures, and menus are posted.

A third surprise was the positive nature of the group, Vega says.

Initially, the admin team set a few ground rules to keep things under control. Only post about things related to carry out orders in Fort Wayne, be respectful of one another, and things like that.

But as thousands of posts from the public started pouring in for approval, the responses they saw were overwhelmingly upbeat.

“I can count on one hand how many things we’ve had to deny due to negativity,” Vega says. “It’s honestly pretty amazing. I just cannot explain how it makes you feel when you see our community is being so positive about this. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen. We are just in awe.”

MC believes this is in part because of the nature of Fort Wayne and its strong support for local restaurants that has been building in recent years.

Since Hop River opened about two years ago, it has prided itself in generating momentum around a sense of community togetherness, seating guests at long picnic tables in its taproom, offering group games, and maintaining a “come as you are” spirit.

Now that strong foundation of community support is paying off.

“I feel like Fort Wayne is finding a sense of community in small ways and in big ways,” MC says. “It’s in our DNA, and it’s why we are searching for a sense of purpose and how to help each other now. We’re seeing this because we already had that structure in place.”

On the other hand, it’s these same close-knit community ties at local restaurants and bars that make COVID-19 procedures so challenging.

***

MC says that as the rules and safety procedures evolved with COVID-19 on the week of March 16, Hop River worked quickly to adjust its processes and stay open at first.

They took coasters off tables and used napkins instead. They upped their cleaning procedures, reduced their kitchen staff, and switched to plastic glasses instead of reusable ones. They even changed the word “shareables” on their menu to “starters,” and took games off the shelves to prevent spreading germs.

But as they kept making changes, they began to realize it was just one thing after the other.

“There are all these things that have been so ingrained in the foundation of our brewery, since the idea of community and supporting the community is so much a part of who we are and how we've designed the space,” MC says. “It really became an interesting challenge.”

Hop Rivers staff prepares the taproom to close.

As the week progressed, they decided to close shop after all. They notified staff on Friday, and by Sunday at 6 p.m., they shut their doors.

“In the taproom right now, all the benches are on the tables, and all the barstools staked up,” MC says. “The staff divided up all the plants, so everybody is plant-sitting.”

Empty chairs on empty tables as Hop River Brewing closes for COVID-19.

MC says supporting Hop River’s staff is the number one priority right now. While their staff has filed for unemployment, they hope to hire everyone back and provide jobs as soon as possible. In the meantime, they’ve been looking for ways to provide staff members with other support, like hot meals, temporary positions, and ways to stay in touch on social media.

Now, Hop River is looking for ways to keep its taproom community engaged virtually, too.

“Regulars are sharing photos with us, showing us that instead of coming into the taproom on a Saturday afternoon, they’re playing games at home still with a can of beer,” MC says. “Those are really sweet encouragements.”

“I think all of us in the industry just feel pretty blindsided and numb, and it’s going to take a while to process all this,” she adds. “I’m interested to see what long term effects it’s going to have, both positive and negative.”

Hop River closed its doors on Sunday due to COVID-19 precautions.

As new challenges and opportunities surface with COVID-19, MC and other restaurant leaders are sharing tips and support on Facebook.  

Behind the scenes, they’re having important conversations to process their responses, too.

“Every day, there’s a new topic of conversation that is brought up by the group,” MC says. “Today we’re talking about how individual businesses are taking precautions to stay open, what certifications a restaurant needs to stay open, and how it’s really up to the consumer to be aware of the risks,” MC says.

While many restaurants were open for carry out the first week of the COVID-19 shutdown, a number of them began to wave the white flag on March 23, when Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a stay home order for the state.

Katie says that while Junk Ditch plans to remain open for curbside pick up this week, they’re taking things day by day.

“There is no playbook for this,” she says. “Everybody responds differently.”

As an admin for 2GoFW and a member of the private Facebook group, Vega has been watching the closure notices roll in, too.

She says health concerns and food waste are two of the top concerns she's seeing on restaurateur’s minds when making the decision to close. Other concerns are how to support their own children and families during this unprecedented time, and she is no stranger to the difficult decision herself.

***

While Zinnia’s Bakehouse offers custom cakes, desserts, and breads to patrons at its retail storefront in downtown Fort Wayne, the bulk of its sales come from supplying breads and pastries to local restaurants, Vega says.

As such, she is accustomed to working closely with other players in Fort Wayne’s restaurant scene. So when COVID-19 came to her attention earlier this month, she knew she would have to close shop—both for her own health and to support her friends in the industry.

Vega and her mother, who also works at Zinnia’s, are both highly anemic. Her mother is also a cancer survivor, making her extra susceptible to the COVID-19 virus.

“We didn’t want to expose our staff, ourselves, or our customers,” Vega explains. “So we chose to close from day one. That said, I am doing everything in my power to still be working.”

Krystal Vega, left, and her mother, Aracely Vega, own Zinnia's Bakehouse.

In her spare time, she has been putting her passion for breadmaking to use, offering to bake free sandwich bread for any individuals or restaurants in need. And she’s been happy that many local restaurants are taking her up on the offer.

So far, she’s donated more than 200 loaves of bread, and she doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. Bread by Zinnia's Bakehouse.

“I’ll make loaves until I run out of flower, bases, and starters, basically,” Vega says. “It’s been really cool to see that people are taking me up on this because they don’t realize it’s helping me cope with everything, too. I’m trying to stay as active as I can.”

And while Vega is in a unique position as a small business owner in having the capacity to give back, she realizes that others are not as lucky.

Many small business owners who have children, for example, are torn between keeping their businesses open to support their staff and taking care of their kids at home now that schools are closed.

Others are worried about feeding their families, in general.

“I feel pretty safe, and so for that reason, I feel like I need to do something for somebody else,” Vega says. “I can’t just sit here knowing that I’m OK.”

Katie says its these type of stories that keep her inspired by Fort Wayne’s food community and the community’s general willingness to help each other out.

“Comradery, not competition has been something I’ve said since day one about the local food scene," she says. "It’s still comradery, not competition.”

The 2GoFW Facebook group offers another example of collaboration.

About every day, a post goes out on the page from a resident, asking which local establishments need some love right now—who could use a customer to lift their spirits or to keep them from going under, Vega says.

These posts are met with quick responses and support.

“It’s just been great to see how much love, how much support is really being shown in this time,” she says. “One thing that’s been repeated a couple of times in our admin group: Our faith in humanity—our faith in our community—has been growing and become so much stronger. We all have businesses in Fort Wayne because we love Fort Wayne, but this has really shown us how much Fort Wayne is worth.”

A mural planned for Zinnia's Grand Reopening.

She says it’s also a good motivation for local restaurant owners to do everything they can to come back as soon as possible.

For now, they are just counting on the community to keep its word.

“What I am seeing in the group, is that so many people are saying, ‘I can’t wait for summer to come, so I can keep going to these restaurants.’ I keep hearing positive reinforcements that the momentum isn’t going to stop with this group; it’s going to keep growing,” Vega says. “I’m really hoping that those words stay true, and people remember.”

Support Fort Wayne’s Food Scene

For those looking to make both an immediate and a lasting impact on local food businesses, Vega has some simple advice. Check out Fund the Fort to support a local restaurant’s staff fundraiser, or even simpler: Post a review on your favorite restaurant’s Facebook page, Yelp, or Google reviews.

After all, simple words of kindness on social media can make a world of difference.

“What we’re trying to remind people is to not just come to the group and document their experience at restaurants, but to also go to that restaurant’s page and post a review,” Vega says. “That’s something that is not just going to help us right now; that is going to help us for the future.”

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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