Feed Us West Chester and Surrounding Areas, a private Facebook group for local dining and drinking establishments and community members, quickly grew into a digital community of support and positivity for struggling businesses during the pandemic. Kristine Mallon created the group on March 24 during the first wave of COVID-19 cases amidst the statewide shutdown. At onset, it included Mallon and local family and friends, but it has since swelled to over 10,000 members and counting.

After the first few months of the pandemic, Mallon quickly realized the toll COVID shutdowns were taking on families and local restaurants and wanted to promote outdoor dining and takeout, with the hopes of sustaining local businesses to the end of the pandemic.

“This group is exclusively for supporting our local eateries, sharing our positive experiences and providing your favorite recommendations and posting pictures of the delicious food. Questions related to COVID-19 guidelines are also welcomed. Everyone wants to feel safe when dining out,” Mallon writes in the group’s About page. Areas included in the community thus far extends to West Chester, Exton, Downingtown, Glen Mills, Chaddsford, Frazer, Malvern, Thorndale, Coatesville, Paoli and other close surrounding areas.

“I began promoting via invitations that were posted on each and every local restaurant’s Facebook page and via private messages,” Mallon told Delaware Valley Journal. “It was promoted in local mom groups, community pages and yard sale groups. Then businesses began inviting other businesses. Members were inviting their family and friends.”

The size of the community eventually grew such that Mallon needed support. “I brought on three additional administrators who have been phenomenal. Cindy Ahern, Victoria Regan and Seth Mathlery have been my lifelines in this process.

“It’s important to me to keep the community small — even though 10,000 seems like a large amount,” she added. “In the grand scheme of things, to me that amount is more personal and intimate for our town. We don’t need all the towns. We just need our towns.”

In addition to sharing struggles and messages of support, Feed Us members have posted information about daily specials and deals as well as creating joint fundraising campaigns. Once the group grew large enough, they started raising money for the Chester County Food Bank. Struggling restaurants offered gift certificates and deals in exchange for donations. Fundraisers became a way to give back to vital organizations as well as drive customers into local restaurants.

Bar Avalon began the first Food Bank fundraiser in the group, which was followed by a “Pay What You Can” drive sponsored by Gadaleto’s Seafood Market. “Both of them combined raised more than $30,000 for the Chester County food bank. And that amount includes the tips employees received and donated back, which exemplifies how this community stands as one. Here are people in need, such as these employees, and they are still helping others with greater needs,” Mallon said.

The group has since done many additional fundraisers and drives collecting supplies and money for frontline and essential workers, Toys for Tots, the Food Bank and more. Currently, Feed Us has a virtual tip jar accepting donations for restaurants staff that have been heavily affected by the shutdown. At time of writing, Feed Us has raised over $4,000 toward its $8,000 goal.

Businesses have taken to independent philanthropy, running their own events and gaining support from the Feed Us community. “[Local eateries] have done ‘Dine-and-Donates’ for local food pantries; fed holiday meals to families who are less fortunate; helped battered women and their children; helped local parents fighting cancer; provided school districts with food; provided ‘Food for the Frontline’ and our police and fire departments; provided meals for the elderly and also for the Boys and Girls club.  Over and over again, with all that these businesses have been going through,  they are still thinking of others —their community. It’s amazing to watch,” Mallon said.

Member businesses have poured out their gratitude for this digital community. Mae’s of West Chester was in a unique position of opening during the pandemic and joined Feed Us at its onset. Owners Erin and Josh Taggart said about joining Feed Us, “Since day one our community has wrapped their arms around us. Opening a restaurant is such a crazy ride (even more so during a pandemic) but the way our town, community, other businesses and especially the Feed Us community has lifted us up and supported us, we know more than ever that West Chester is where we are meant to be. We are seriously overwhelmed and grateful for all they have done.”

Mallon summed up the experience with a quote shared by Roots Café in West Chester: “ ‘We started a fire, and as long as there is fire, your favorite restaurants can keep on cooking.’ We are hoping that fire remains lit.  To ensure that happens, please remember to support local because those local businesses are the backbone of every community. And TIP as if you’re dining in.”