From social media group to in-person community: Clark County Food Fiends choose to 'embrace local'

Ryan Ray loves good food. But, his love of good food isn’t comparable to his love for the people and places in his community and his deep-rooted drive to champion both.

“The realization hit me after the pandemic that a lot of local eateries were hanging on by a thread,” says Ray, who has lived in Springfield all his life, minus a short stint in Colorado. “I was on a trip in Tennessee when this idea hit me – what if we create something that draws people to really ‘embrace local’ instead of just supporting local?”

By supporting local, he says, people go to a shop or restaurant and patronize it. While that’s a start, “embracing local” takes the concept a step further.

“Embracing it is bragging about it, showing pride in it and trying to get other people to enjoy it also,” Ray says. “For too long we’ve had this stigma in Clark County that you have to go here to have fun or go there to enjoy food and that you have to leave Clark County to do it. So, my thought was to create a new perception by showing that we have a lot to brag about without having to go outside of Clark County and that we should embrace that.”

Ray took to social media, and on March 27, 2022, he started the Clark County Food Fiends group on Facebook. The group provides a platform to shine a positive light on the community as a whole by inviting people to share uplifting insights about their favorite local restaurants and dishes.

Through invite upon invite, the group quickly grew to hundreds, then thousands of followers – all flocking to Food Fiends to share in each other’s experiences at local restaurants. And, the momentum didn’t slow. The group now boasts more than 18,000 members, with new people still clicking to join daily.

Ray’s one rule: No negative posts. Which has been confusing for some and very hard-to-follow for others. But, none the less, Ray has refused to waiver because his determination to bring people together who choose to uplift rather than tear down is stronger than the voices of the naysayers.

“We’ve been trained to go to social media and leave a bad review,” he says. “I’m trying to help people understand that there is a good way and a proper way to let a local eatery right a wrong. And business owners have been encouraged by it because we don’t allow local diners to crucify local eateries.”

Local restauranteurs, including Tom Thompson – owner and chef of Eatly – couldn’t be more thankful.

Ray posted about the Italian spot at 601 N. Fountain Ave., just off of Wittenberg University’s campus. He posted not only pictures and a rave review of Thompson’s food, but also shared about the ambiance and his great interactions with the chef.

This – along with an in-the-car taste test of homemade oatmeal cream pies from Hot Honey Bakery – are among the more memorable early posts from Ray, who is just one of the many community voices that post in the group throughout the day, every day.

And it’s easy to get lost in the comment sections – where you won’t find any “bitter tea” being spilled. These comments are worth wading through for the “Ooohh”s and “Aaahh”s that aren’t so often found on every public social media page.

“Now, instead of one negative comment devastating an eatery that is just barely hanging on by a thread, businesses are selling out of things that have been posted. What a great problem to have post-pandemic?” Ray says.

Thompson is just one of the restaurant owners who has felt this kind of positive impact from the online community.

“It’s really been something exciting that has contributed here to our business growing and to our second year, last year, being our best year yet,” he says. “And the relationships that have grown from it … it’s exciting to see how social media has connected people.”

Frequently, news talks about social media isolating people and leading to a loner, anti-social society.

But the growth of the Clark County Food Fiends group has been a positive example of exactly the opposite outcome.

Group members have not only become online acquaintances, but they have also developed in-person friendships.

For example, Thompson hosted one of a number of Food Fiends exclusive events last fall – an Italian Thanksgiving – where patrons enjoyed a traditional Italian Thanksgiving feast and, more importantly, took pause to each share about something good in their lives.

“Most of the people who come here, they only want positive things right now in their lives because of the craziness going on in the world right now,” Thompson says. “And this is a place they feel that the atmosphere has that positive energy … it’s a little safe haven to enjoy food and a fun atmosphere, and maybe we’ll see them back the next week with a group of friends.”

Other in-person meet-ups have included a Fall Fete at Pendleton’s Produce and a variety of pop-up get togethers when Ray shouts out for fellow Fiends to meet for lunch at various locations.

Group member Kelly Brown, a lifelong South Charleston resident, says she never imagined when she first joined Clark County Food Fiends in late Spring 2022 that it would be a community that would lead to new connections and friendships.

“I grew up in the country on meat and potatoes. I didn’t have lobster or crab or risotto,” Brown says. “So, when I first joined, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll learn about new restaurants and new things,’ and it kind of went from there.”

Brown says she’s met new friends who she now looks forward to hanging out with and has found a lot of new restaurants and new foods to enjoy.

“I think it’s bringing out restaurants that don’t get a lot of attention otherwise – like Eatly, which is a little gem of a restaurant,” she says, adding that the positive life the page has taken on is derived from Ray himself.

Brown describes Ray as being a “How can I help?” person, “because that’s just who he truly is.”

And Ray’s spirt of helping just for the sake of helping – of positivity breeding more positivity – and of choosing to uplift others simply because you can, took a stronghold over the group and its members.

Ray says it started with a collection to raise money in memory of fallen Clark County Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Yates, who was killed in the line of duty in July 2022. The Fiends raised about $6,000 in honor of Yates.

It continued with funds raised in the fall for a local mother of four who was battling breast cancer. The group came through with about $11,000 to support her and her family.

“I’m presenting a cause and letting people do what they’d like to with it,” Ray says. “It’s given people a feeling of purpose and togetherness and a true community, in a sense.

“The thing people do not talk about enough in this town is how we really come together when the need is there and when the need presents itself. … We’ve wrangled the good ones together, and they’re looking to spread positivity and sink their teeth into good causes.”

And Ray knows quite a bit about good causes because of his role serving as the Development Director for the Springfield Salvation Army for the past nine years. Prior to that, Ray was a youth pastor for the organization.

“I get to work with donors and corporations giving out of the kindness of their hearts, and also individual donors giving,” he says. “It’s shown me a lot of great people in our community and a lot of people working behind the scenes. That part, for me, is one of the best parts of my job. I get to work with the best of the best people who deeply care about this community.”

And that same kind of deep community care and commitment has shone through the Clark County Food Fiends page, too. It took over a life of its own in mid-January with a simple but thoughtful post about an employee from the McDonald’s on South Limestone Street.

The post from Nicole Carter Jones shares how the employee – Mac – made her day better because he was “so kind and full of joy,” and says, “Thank you Mac, you’re a beautiful soul great job!!!”

The recognition post gained immediate attention and was fast to reach thousands – hundreds of whom commented to also share their own positive experiences with and gratitude for Mac.

And with that – Ray created the first Clark County Food Fiends MacLuminate award. The group quickly raised funds to celebrate Mac and the joy he brings to the community, and Ray was able to present him with a check for $5,500.

Since then, funds have been collected for a second MacLuminate award recipient – Ms. Kellie, a cashier at the Kroger on Derr Road, who many community members praised for her “sweetness, kindness, helpfulness, and infectious spirit.”

The fact that these local service employees were organically recognized and celebrated through the Food Fiends groups is exactly the kind of community building Ray had only dreamed of when he started pushing the idea of “embracing local” instead of only supporting local.

Moving forward, Eatly’s Thompson has chosen to reopen his seasonal restaurant with an already sold-out preview night, for which seating was promoted exclusively through the Food Fiends group.

And, Ray is looking forward to the upcoming Food Fiends Takeover at The Market at COhatch Springfield. The event will celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Food Fiends group from 4 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 30.

Merch – T-shirts, hats and more – created by Special-T Shop also recently dropped in the group (check it out here), and Ray already has plans in the works for The Great Barbecue Conflict, a local food truck barbecue competition to be hosted on June 24.

“I’m working on building a brand and building a community. I think we’re at a point now, almost a year into it, that people have developed a pride in the group,” Ray says. “It’s something bigger than ourselves. It’s ultra-positive and something they can brag about.

“We have to keep highlighting the good stuff here because that word travels. When we’re trying to attract people to live here and come explore here, we have to change the narrative we’ve had for so long. Food Fiends is trying to accomplish that and is giving people a reason to brag about our community through our great food.”
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