Wollongong-founded COVID-19 Facebook foodie group 'Illawarra Menus' racks up 20,000 followers in six days

Last Monday as day care centre owner Toria Kotamanidis was heading out the door to work she had an idea.

She was thinking about COVID-19 and how a lot of restaurants and cafes were going to suffer from no one being allowed to dine in any more.

So she decided to do something to try and help them out.

Ms Kotamanidis had never done anything like it before but proceeded to set up a Facebook group where eateries across the Illawarra could post their menus.

Her idea was to create a one-stop-shop for menus that made it easy for everyone to find the kind of delicious food they used to go out for.

Ms Kotamanidis headed to work at Sue's Scholar (Collective Family Day Care) last Monday thinking if her idea might help a few businesses survive and provide more options to those seeking a meal.

But thousands signed on to join the group straight away. Within five days she had over 18,000 members and is on target to hit more than 20,000 within the first week.

"When I was heading off to work last Monday I thought if we go into the lockdown the only thing that is going to be available is the supermarkets and what is going to happen to all the businesses like cafes and restaurants," she said.

"All cafes and restaurants were suddenly restricted to just takeaway and deliveries. And I thought "wouldn't it be easy if there were just one place where the Illawarra could go that provided access to all their menus". The response was overwhelming. It just took off like crazy".

By Sunday afternoon 145 eateries had posted menus on the Illawarra Menus page for people to scroll through.

As part of the free service Ms Kotamanidis has made businesses free albums with photos and information such as their name, location and trading hours.

She realised many of the cafes and restaurants were fighting to survive and keep their staff employed. And did not have the time to do it all themselves.

Ms Kotamanidis has never worked in the hospitality industry and is not affiliated with anyone in the sector.

She just loves being able to help her community during the coronavirus crisis.

"People can just type the business's name in the search engine and everything pops up," she said.

As a sole trader and mother of a seven-month-old daughter Ms Kotamanidis knows how important it is for others to try and stay in business and employ people so they can provide for their families.

"My heart goes out to everyone. If thought if I can help other people at this time then why not"?

"I have three other friends (Bree Sheridan, Kiara Bahamondes-McKibbin and Arabella Atsas) helping me as moderators. They can actually recruit people, make albums for restaurants and cafes and help answer any questions people have.

"The Illawarra Menus page has been pretty easy to maintain. And when my seven-month-old is up for her bottle in the middle of night I help make albums".

Mr Kotamanidis thinks it is great eateries are doing takeaways and deliveries during social isolation.

She said it means people won't have to go to a supermarket as often.

And that will help reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19.

"Of course the restaurants providing this service have to meet hygiene standards and follow regulations," she said.

"They are doing everything they can to make it safe.

"So if you can get food delivered straight to your door well why not?"

Ms Kotamanidis said the growth in meal deliveries since the introduction of social distancing is creating some other new trends.

On the Illawarra Menus page she has seen some eateries working with taxi drivers who make the deliveries and in turn helping that industry at a time when fewer people are catching a cab.

"I am absolutely loving it," she said.

"And it is so good when an eatery posts they have sold out of food because they have taken so many delivery orders.

"I cried when we hit 10,000 members," she said.

Ms Kotamanidis has had a few eateries offer her free meals for providing the service.

But she tells them she would prefer they give it to a homeless person or the Homeless Hub.

Her whole motivation is to provide a free service that helps as many businesses and people as Illawarra Menus can.

"This has never been for me. It is for the community. I didn't expect it to grow this big. But it has and I love it because it is making a difference," she said.

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This story Wollongong-founded COVID-19 Facebook foodie group racks up 20,000 followers in six days first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.