When Rob Skuza moved to Superior, finding a prime place to eat was a top priority.
With minimal Northland connections, Skuza launched a Facebook page that he hoped would help spread the culinary love. And, what started as a virtual spot for recommendations turned into much more.
Since its June 2020 launch, Twin Ports Foodies has nearly 9,000 members made up of food lovers, restaurateurs, recipe-sharers and more.
A quick scan of the homepage shows photos of tater tot hot dish, crab legs and caramelized jackfruit "pulled pork” right next to open restaurant position notices and a discussion topic about the difference between spaghetti sauce and pizza sauce.
Among its members are local restaurant owners Matt Berthiaume of the Social House, John Jenkins of New London Cafe, Howard Ross of Howard's Q'ue; as well as employees from The Crooked Pint to Top Hat Tavern.
For those eating out less during the shutdown, the page became a way to generate ideas and to point people in the direction of support rather than tearing down the local restaurant industry, which was experiencing especially hard times.
It was a surreal experience, said Scuza, who admitted that starting a page like this is outside his normal M.O., but the gains were plentiful for him and the community.
He was introduced to JamRock Cultural Restaurant in Superior and his favorite burger spot, Big Daddy’s in Duluth's Piedmont Heights neighborhood. And, the page turned into a form of positive connection during the shutdown. You weren’t face-to-face, but you could still share your story, share your experiences with food, Scuza said.
As a local presence grew, Scuza wanted it to help support local restaurants. Restaurant managers were encouraged to post specials or features, or updates on their available hours.
Twin Ports Foodies has been a game-changer for the industry during the pandemic, said Nick Johnson, chef and co-owner of The Kettle in South Range.
It’s about spreading the word about local food, the admins keep it positive and civil, and much of Facebook is the complete opposite, he said, adding: The page is a really good thing for local businesses.
- Things We Like: Phoholic's special pho combo boasts 3 meats
- Proctor’s own cake boss makes cupcakes her full-time gig
- Family flavor: Duluth couple packs a punch with their jars of cheesecake
Johnson grew up in Superior and went from bartender to culinary school. He interned at New Scenic Cafe. Since then, he moved around to Grand Superior Lodge, Nokomis Restaurant and Bar and to Essentia Health-St . Mary's Medical Center.
When COVID-19 hit, he spent two months drywalling. Soon after, he went in on the purchase of The Kettle. Johnson uses the Foodies page to view other restaurant menu items, to stay current on what’s up and coming; and as another platform for his business. “I use it to advertise for the bar, as well,” he said.
It’s an asset for local folks in and out of the industry, said Johnson, who has noticed members posting food photos and cooking questions. They’re looking for a professional opinion on how to improve their dishes or presentation, and it’s a direct way to offer feedback.
It has also helped fill vacancies in the kitchen. “It’s hard to find employees right now and to keep morale up. A page like this is a really good tool for that,” he said.
Lifelong Duluthian Davina Chilberg has worked in the local food industry for 25 years — at Epic in Superior, Silos in Duluth, and Lucky’s 13. As far as she knows, this social media group is the first of its kind in our area.
As a page administrator, she works to keep the page in line with its mission; and in that, not all food-related posts make it up.
“A gal messaged me and asked if she could post her son’s Boy Scouts fundraiser. I’d like to say ‘yes,’ but that leaves the door open to 9,000 other members to post their kids’ fundraisers. That’s not what this board is about, and we want to keep it focused on our cooking and restaurant experiences,” she said.
Also, not all member requests are approved.
Chilberg sees notifications drop from Thunder Bay, the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, the Dakotas. As much as we would like to add them and grow the group, we want to keep it more locally based, she said.
And negative comments are not allowed. If someone has a restaurant complaint, they are referred to the business. They want the page to remain a light, uplifting space that doesn’t exacerbate the already tough times of the past year-plus.
COVID-19 has been “extremely hard” on the industry, especially up here. “With supply issues, nobody wants to work. People are leaving their jobs and there’s an extremely high turnover rate in the restaurant business. Always has been,” she said.
The Twin Ports Foodies page offers a unique platform to unify and share common ground. “Everybody has to eat and we all love food, and with the turmoil that our country’s been in in the last couple years, that’s one thing we can brush everything aside and agree upon — food,” Chilberg said.
There’s more to come for the group.
In June, they partnered with the Boat Club on a members-only event in which about 40 gathered to dine on a seafood boil, pork kofta kebabs, bon bons from Duluth Candy Co. and much more.
Chilberg said they aim to partner and plan more events like this; and she’s currently working with other professional chefs to offer virtual or in-home cooking classes.
While work has yet again moved Scuza and his family away — this time, to Stockton, California — he is still tuned into the Twin Ports Foodies page.
Once he’s settled, he said he’ll launch one in his new home if they don’t already have one. Reflecting on the page, Scuza said the joy of it during COVID rises to the top.
“It was very rewarding to see how this group supported our local restaurants during a time that they needed it.”
You can find the Twin Ports Foodies Facebook group at bit.ly/3wtdIjK.