Catharine Jennifer, known as Ceejay, and her husband, Ryan Weaber, wanted to do something to help Lebanon County’s restaurants make it through the COVID-19 shutdown.
So, on March 13, they launched the Facebook group Virtual Dinner Party.
“Our mission is to support our friends and local community while eating delicious food,” the page’s intro says. “We may not be together… but we can be as we support our local restaurants.”
What happened after that surprised them. Instead of a few dozen followers from their circle of Facebook friends, the page attracted more than 2,600 followers in a few weeks. They hungrily shared pictures of plates piled with food, and offered their opinions on who had the best pork-fried rice, burritos and burgers.
In short, the Weabers underestimated Lebanon County residents’ dedication to their cafes, dives and diners.
VDP became a hangout for the hungry, and a place of discovery. One follower wrote that they were learning about restaurants they never knew existed.
“That was one of the coolest comments I read,” Ryan said. “Seeing that someone posted that and it was like, ‘yeah, there are these great little restaurants that aren’t getting any attention, and now they are just because of this group.’”
Restaurant owners noticed, too.
Lazaro’s, a BYOB Italian bistro in Palmyra, told the couple they had about 10 new customers come by for take-out because of the Facebook group. Mark Arnold, owner of The Gin Mill, one the Lebanon City’s best-known restaurant bars, and a friend of the couple, reported one of his best weeks “in a long while.”
To keep the engagement going, Ceejay and Brian decided give something back to their members by doing a weekly drawing for a gift card to a local restaurant.
“We wanted to do something to keep engagement up,” said Ryan, 37, an intensive care nurse.
They reached out to Mancinno’s and Rotunda Brewing Co., to buy cards. Instead, the restaurants donated them. After the first drawing, more restaurants donated cards.
“I think we‘ve given away more than $300 so far,” Ryan said.
“It’s been an interesting month,” said Ceejay, 32, a non-medical health care worker for Angels on call, where she is vice president for development. “I never expected it to grow like it has.”
People want to help and do things that are community related, she said. “It’s really lonely right now. This… has been their light in the crisis.”