One of the few good things about coronavirus is the way it has challenged some common ideas about human nature.
The global pandemics of fiction imagined lawlessness, mass looting, murder and chaos — not charity and voluntary quarantining.
And on social media, we could have reasonably expected outpourings of anger and hate. There's plenty of that, but there's also a new Facebook group in Dallas with a no-negativity mission has taken on the challenge of saving hundreds of independent restaurants from extinction.
The group, Asian Grub in DFDUB, launched in late March after a group of old college friends from the University of Texas at Arlington met for an online chat and observed that many of their favorite mom-and-pop restaurants don’t have websites or social media presences. They wondered: Why don’t we try to give them a voice online?
Asian Grub in DFDUB reached 19,500 members in just six weeks, and it’s now become such a positive force that some restaurant owners describe it as a business-saver.
James Phan, owner of the Dallas location of Korean bar DanSungSa, calls the Facebook group “my marketing strategy.”
“Most of my deliveries come from Asian Grub,” Phan adds.
“The support has been amazing since joining the group,” says Philip Dang, who runs Pho 544 in Murphy with his father, Randy Dang, and mother, Quan Nguyen. “I’ve had many customers travel from cities like Arlington and Grand Prairie, coming all the way out to Murphy to try my food.”
Stories like that are beyond the wildest dreams of the group’s founders.
Kimberly Le, who was on the original chart and is now one of Asian Grub’s administrators, explains, “Each time my husband or I would go pick up food, we’d talk to the owners and hear that they were working 12-hour shifts, six or seven days a week. These restaurants were struggling before social distancing measures took place, because of the political climate, the mistrust of the public and misinformation about how COVID-19 was spread.
“We talked about how a lot of them are mom-and-pop shops, no marketing,” Le continues. “If there’s a Yelp page for them, they don’t claim those pages. That’s where we decided to start a Facebook group.”
When the friends said goodbye, Tran Loh signed off and immediately created the page. The next morning, Asian Grub had already attracted a thousand members.
“We honestly did not expect this at all,” Loh says. “We’re so happy it was so able to reach so many people in such a short amount of time. We were just so overwhelmed at first, but I think what attracted people to it most was the way we organized it.”
Asian Grub in DFDUB is, indeed, a marvel of organization, especially by social media standards. There’s a Google Sheets file listing every single Asian-owned restaurant tracked by the group, with contact information, addresses and cuisine types. If a business isn’t on the list, the owner can submit information through a form. The full list is also available in Google Maps, so diners can see what’s nearby.
Loh, Le and fellow founder-administrators Michelle Vi Pepping, Nancy Lee and Vu Ly run a tight ship. New members must answer questions designed to verify they won’t troll the group — 700 potential memberships are still pending because the users didn’t provide answers.
The administrators, all of whom have jobs and some of whom have children, take shifts helping Asian Grub’s members find their next meal and helping restaurant owners advertise.
“We’re constantly answering questions when people are looking for something that’s open in Carrollton or Fort Worth or Plano,” Le says. “We are calling the restaurants and finding out. We feel truly connected, and it is exhausting because it is a lot of work. We did not expect this. We’re just like — that first group chat, what did we get ourselves into?”
And, at least during the coronavirus outbreak, Asian Grub is not permitting reviews or negative feedback. That decision was made early on.
“That was one of our decision points, whether we wanted to just display content supporting these restaurants, or allowing people to place reviews too,” Loh explains. “As this went along, we felt like it would be best to keep it purely being able to support and let this be a free advertising platform for these people who don’t have the means to go out and advertise, to use this platform to advocate for themselves. Putting negativity on there, negative feedback or negative reviews, I’m not sure it would be helpful to these restaurants, because they’re not all in the group to see the feedback or defend themselves.”
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That policy has led to a few dust-ups, but overall Asian Grub is impressively drama-free. Almost every diner-submitted post focuses on praise for a restaurant they love. Sometimes meals seem to go viral within the group, like the huge array of mouthwatering photos of Ricky’s Hot Chicken, a halal, Asian-owned chicken shop in Richardson.
Even Asian Grub’s administrators have been surprised by the abundance of Asian restaurants in North Texas with loyal online followings. For diners, the group has become a go-to reference guide to specials, rare menu specialties, neighborhood spots and even breaking news. Last week, members announced the reopening of Saigon Block, a Vietnamese institution in Richardson, and the permanent closure of Lion City, a Singaporean restaurant in Plano.
For business owners, the group has become a lifeline.
“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, from nail salons, cleaners and more,” says Randy Dang of Pho 544. “I’ve been through many tough times, but we find ways to survive. No matter how hard it is right now, this is our livelihood. We must keep working.”