How Facebook Foodies Are Fighting To Save San Gabriel Valley Restaurants
This story is part of a series focusing on how restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley are coping with the COVID-19.
Alan An and Brian Ngoy are San Gabriel Valley lifers. Between the pair, they lived in Monterey Park, Arcadia and Rosemead while growing up. Both work in San Gabriel, at the same real estate firm, where Ngoy works as a realtor and An heads business development. Like many SGV residents, they take full advantage of the area's amazing restaurants.
"It's more than just a hobby," Ngoy says. "Food and restaurants are so intertwined with the SGV community. It's its own culture."
Some 30 miles away, in the city of Eastvale, Ted Chang is busy juggling work and home life with his wife and two young kids during the lockdown. Chang came to the United States from Taiwan in 2008 to pursue a Master's Degree in electrical engineering. Wherever he has lived — Los Angeles County, Orange County, the Inland Empire — he has spent a good chunk of his free time exploring local restaurants.
Chang has never met An or Ngoy but the three men have something in common. They all founded Facebook groups that have become indispensable resources for matching hungry San Gabriel Valley residents to restaurants still dishing out food during the coronavirus quarantine.
Chang launched his Chinese-language group, 吃遍南加州 ("Let's Eat! Southern California"), in October 2013, while he was working as a semiconductor engineer in Fullerton. What started as a chatroom among friends on a messaging app has become required reading for nearly 24,000 Chinese-speaking Facebook users who post dozens of recommendations for all kinds of cuisines. Some members reside in other states, even other countries, but most live in Southern California so SGV's Chinese restaurants dominate the feed.
Although it's a private group, Chang decided early on that almost anyone could join, except for restaurants. Too much self-promotion, he reasoned. (Restaurateurs can participate via their personal accounts but no official restaurant accounts.) But as the pandemic began to brutalize the restaurant industry, he changed his mind.
"I realized near the end of March, no one was going to restaurants. Some people started asking [in the group], 'Where we can have to-go meals?,'" says Chang, who moderates the group with the help of three friends. "So at that time, I was thinking, let those restaurants post their commercials. Because in the end, we need to support them."
Two days after L.A. County officials issued a stay-at-home order, in mid-March, he posted (in Chinese) a message on his group announcing "Let's Eat! Southern California" is now open for restaurants to post their take-out menus and new hours of operation during COVID-19." For many businesses, the move was a godsend.
"It was very important," says Alan Pun, who operates Uniboil, a hot pot restaurant in Monterey Park. "吃遍南加州 is helpful because they have a lots of high quality members, they are actually living at our community and always eat outside."
Around the same time, Ngoy and An were feeling the impact of stay-at-home orders on their daily routines. For their jobs in real estate, they zip between different places, typically grabbing food on the go. They found that many of their favorite restaurants had either closed or shortened their hours. Yelp was no help.
An and Ngoy could only imagine how difficult life was for restaurant owners. In early April, they started the SGV Open Restaurants During Covid-19 group as a place for friends and family members to share intel. Word spread and three weeks later, more than 7,000 people had joined.
"The SGV community is a strong one, it's such a tight-knit community. Everyone is pretty much looking for what we were looking for," An says.
While the growth was impressive, what's more impressive was the love and support the group generated. Instead of devolving into foodier-than-thou pissing matches and battles about which mom-and-pop noodle joint serves the best dan dan mian, users posted tips and deals, asked questions about where to find specific dishes and shared news about reopenings, all with an eye toward supporting the San Gabriel Valley's many restaurants, especially the independent ones.
As word of the SGV group spread, people from outside of the area began nudging An and Ngoy to create similar groups for their cities. Thus was born Los Angeles Open Restaurants During Covid-19. Groups for Orange County, San Fernando Valley and other areas are slated to debut later this week.
If running that many groups isn't time-consuming enough, the two friends and their fellow moderators have compiled a list of all the SGV restaurants still open for business during COVID-19. And just this morning, they launched a GoFundMe project to connect users to restaurants that will donate meals to frontline health care workers.
An, Ngoy and Chang are all optimistic that in a post-coronavirus world, the San Gabriel Valley's famed restaurant scene will bounce back, even thrive.
"I think restaurants will still be prevalent in our area," Ngoy says. "It's the American dream. Immigrants come to America. They try to make it on their own. One way people get started is through restaurants and sharing the food they have and connecting with people that way."