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Newhall Refinery gastropub with diners on a Saturday evening in Santa Clarita.
Newhall Refinery gastropub with diners on a Saturday evening in Santa Clarita
Wonho Frank Lee

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A Massive 16,000-Member Facebook Group Is Changing How the LA Suburb of Santa Clarita Dines Out

Santa Clarita Foodies can swing the fortunes of new restaurants, and even drive local news coverage. How did one Facebook group become so singularly influential?

On December 18, 2012, Santa Clarita resident and former radio producer Todd Wilson found himself frustrated by increasingly contentious conversations he was having on social media, particularly about that year’s congressional race between Republican incumbent Buck McKeon and Democrat Lee C. Rogers. (McKeon, who won, is now retired.) Fed up, Wilson promised himself that he would start a group “that does nothing but talk about the local food scene.” So he founded the Santa Clarita Foodies Facebook group, asking about 20 close friends to join as initial members.

In the nine years since, Santa Clarita Foodies — or as it’s more popularly known, SCV Foodies — has exploded from a tight network of locals into one of the most influential and expansive resources for diners, restaurants, and even news outlets in the greater Santa Clarita Valley. The group currently counts north of 16,000 members, more than 18 percent of the population of the city of Santa Clarita itself. With such staggering numbers, the group wields a surprising amount of local influence.

During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, when calls to support small businesses are frequent, a single enthusiastic post on the group’s Facebook page has the potential to put real money into the hands of owners and workers at struggling restaurants, wineries, and taco stands across the valley. More than a few area owners credit the Santa Clarita Foodies Facebook page with directly helping to keep their businesses alive through tougher moments for the community and larger industry.

“When the [2019] fires hit our community, they came to the rescue,” says Shannon Mee, who owns and operates arguably the most popular restaurant in the city, Newhall’s Egg Plantation, with husband and partner Simon Mee. “Likewise, when restaurants were hit so very hard during the pandemic shutdown, the page helped promote takeout and grocery sales. Within minutes of me posting a new grocery list, I had thousands of views. It truly saved our restaurants.”

The group’s administrators and the many members who monitor and contribute to its page have the power to jump-start new businesses, as happened recently with Tento, a Japanese-Korean fusion restaurant with a street food-inspired menu that quietly opened in the Santa Clarita Valley last October.

Outside Tento in Canyon Country with signs advertising prices.
Outside Tento in Canyon Country
Wonho Frank Lee
Crispy potato hot dog from Tento in Canyon Country.
Crispy potato hot dog from Tento
Wonho Frank Lee

Though tiny, Tento had quickly gained a small, devoted local following for its steaming potato-breaded corndogs and artisanal variations on traditional musubi, such that staff were already accustomed to lines winding out the door within weeks of opening. Then, in January, an SCV Foodies contributor named Katie Kumazawa posted about Tento in the group conversation. “This place looks amazing,” said Kumazawa, a former account manager and regular on the page. Her post was quickly swarmed with excited responses: “I consider myself to be a regular on this page, and this is the first I’m reading about this restaurant,” replied Lee Morrell, a media relations specialist originally from Pennsylvania. “Sign me up,” wrote an anonymous user under the name Chaz Bish.

The next morning, commenters announced that owner Chris Lee’s team was being overwhelmed with customers who had heard about Tento from Facebook. The restaurant’s page started trending on Yelp, the business phone line became impenetrably busy, and wait times ballooned on delivery apps from the typical 20 to 30 minutes to nearly two hours — an extraordinary wait for a fast-casual restaurant in the sleepier Canyon Country neighborhood. Less than 24 hours after Kumazawa’s referral, Tento closed entirely. Disappointed customers noted on social media that Lee had run out of food, and needed the weekend to restock. “Did I do that?” joked Kumazawa.

Counter at Tento.
Worker assembles a shrimp musubi at Tento. Wonho Frank Lee
Shrimp musubi from Tento.

Shrimp musubi from Tento

Michael Brown, the weekend radio news lead for KHTS FM 98.1 & AM 1220, Santa Clarita’s Hometown Station, says that his team has long consulted posts like Kumazawa’s when reporting on local food stories. According to Brown, the page’s huge audience allows KHTS “to keep our finger on the pulse of what’s opening, what’s closing, what’s popular, and what’s not.” KHTS reporters also monitor similar Facebook groups like Santa Clarita Valley Dining Guide and Santa Clarita Community for news, he says, though the Foodies page is the largest and most active food-focused group in the area. “SCV Foodies is most often our primary link to our food community,” says Brown.

The city’s oldest newspaper, the Santa Clarita Valley Signal, also maintains a relationship with the Foodies. In 2020, the paper partnered with feedSCV — a food-access nonprofit spinoff that Todd Wilson co-founded with fellow Foodies administrator Scott Ervin in 2015 — to present an interactive map of open food businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reached for comment on the paper’s use of the Foodies Facebook group to source stories and interact with diners, Signal editor Tim Whyte declined to comment for this story, saying via email instead that “as a matter of policy, we typically don’t participate in interviews for articles in other media — we prefer to report the news as opposed to making it.”

SCV Foodies founder Wilson says he never anticipated making an impact on Santa Clarita’s restaurant culture when he was growing up in Burbank in the ’80s and ’90s. At the time, the SCV’s population was barely 165,000. “I knew [Santa Clarita] as a stop on the way to somewhere else,” he remembers. On the rare occasions his family visited Six Flags Magic Mountain, “we saw the chain restaurants,” but little more of note.

Inside Newhall Refinery, Santa Clarita.
Inside Newhall Refinery, Santa Clarita
Wonho Frank Lee
Chef handles orders at Newhall Refinery.
Chef handles orders at Newhall Refinery
Wonho Frank Lee

Wilson’s perspective changed after he and his family moved to the Santa Clarita Valley in 2006. One afternoon, he lunched randomly at Wolf Creek Restaurant & Brewing Co., a Valencia landmark known for its house-made desserts and beers. Partway through the meal, he was impressed by owners Rob and Laina McFerren’s courage in investing in a family-owned, non-chain brewery, especially at a time when such businesses were scarce in the city. “There was something different here,” Wilson says. (Rob McFerren sadly passed away in late 2020)

FeedSCV co-founder Ervin was among the first five people Wilson brought on to help monitor and curate the Santa Clarita Foodies page. In those early days, the group “kind of sputtered along,” with friends posting casual pictures and joking about recent meals, Ervin says. Then, in the spring of 2014, the page “kind of exploded. It went from 100 to 300 to 500 [members], all in the space of a week. And then it just kept growing ... exponentially.” By May 4, 2014, the group had reached the all-important 1,000-member threshold; by mid-August, it was up to 3,000. Three years later, 10,000 Santa Claritans — a broad cross-section of the valley’s many ages, genders, and ethnicities — had become Foodies.

Wilson attributes the excitement around Facebook groups and the Foodies’ now-defunct (but at the time, quite popular) potluck meetup “Foodiefest” with the growth spurt. But the enormous success of the group meant increased responsibility as well, and it wasn’t long before Ervin and the other administrators were forced to discuss how to handle their increasing power over the local food scene. “Early on, we struggled with a couple of things,” he admits. There was the issue of the name, “Foodies,” which in some members’ minds entailed a certain level of snobbery. Early iterations of the page also allowed completely open commenting, leading to a frustrating redundancy in posts. “People would be like, ‘Where’s the best sushi place? Where’s the best sushi place? Hey, does anybody know where the best sushi place is?!’” Ervin says.

Ultimately, the administrators opted to hone in on more personal and unique Santa Clarita-specific stories, pushing recommendation requests (“where’s the best sushi place?”) to Sundays and banning hate speech. Priority was then given to timelier posts, such as announcements about the opening or closing of a local restaurant, or members’ home-cooked meals (the bulk of most daily posts recently). The new protocols around what kinds of posts were allowed to publish and when led to what Ervin calls “some rather rousing discussions” about moderation. One particularly contentious stipulation, says Wilson, was no spamming. “We don’t want anybody coming in going, ‘Hey, I’m the bartender at Bergie’s.’”

Hot chicken sandwich, fries, and a craft beer at Newhall Refinery.
Hot chicken sandwich, fries, and a craft beer at Newhall Refinery
Wonho Frank Lee

Another of the moderators, Eve Hammond Bushman, says that the group’s mission today is, in part, the direct promotion of independent restaurants as they face increasing pressure from national chains, slowed sales during the pandemic, and other risks inherent in running a restaurant. A 35-year SCV resident and a wine and food consultant, Hammond Bushman witnessed firsthand as the valley’s culinary scene transitioned from sleepy to bustling in the late 2000s, and she’s eager to help keep the group focused on independent growth.

“We didn’t have a mall,” Hammond Bushman remembers of her move to the valley about 35 years ago. “We certainly didn’t have many of the restaurants that we have today.” But as the city’s population expanded in the wake of the 2008 recession, wider interest in high-end regional cuisine grew thanks to restaurants and wineries like Juan Alonso’s bistro Le Chêne, and Reyes Winery in Agua Dulce. Franchises and chain restaurants also proliferated — and never stopped, adding competition to the independent places. “[The Foodies] tend to support our mom-and-pop restaurants,” Hammond Bushman says, mentioning campaigns to save neighborhood favorites like Saugus Cafe and the Mees’ (now Patrick Mescall’s) Newhall Refinery as recent rallying cries against total conglomeration. “They’re our local neighbors, and we want to help them.”

Puchella Winery sign window. Wonho Frank Lee
Couple orders wine from Pulchella Winery in Santa Clarita. Wonho Frank Lee
Worker serves wine at Pulchella Winery in Santa Clarita. Wonho Frank Lee

Worker serves wine at Pulchella Winery in Santa Clarita

For Ervin and Wilson, the group takes up a fair bit of mental space and real-world time, serving as something of an unpaid second job. Both are acutely aware of the group’s size and stature, and its ability to influence the news, support family-owned restaurants, and galvanize the community. But ultimately, the group is also just a place for people from all walks of life to look at food photos and chat about their voracious appetites. Wilson and Ervin both say they don’t take themselves that seriously.

The main goal is to bolster the idea that Santa Clarita holds its own in the Southern California dining landscape. They’re proud that, pre-pandemic, some of the 16,000 Santa Clarita Foodies used to gather together regularly to break bread. “We always had a vision for what this was going to be,” says Ervin. “And to the extent that we can, we’ll channel that.”

Steve Lemley, the co-owner of Pulchella Winery in Newhall, says he feels that the kind of support Wilson, Ervin, and their fellow Foodies have offered local business owners during the pandemic deserves some recognition on its own. “We share a common goal in town,” says Lemley, “which is passion for food and wine and everything else.”

Lemley also says he feels a responsibility to make his tasting room “feel like Cheers,” because he knows that his community is filled with Foodies who could, at any time, go to Facebook and recommend Pulchella. He knows those posts are meaningful, and he doesn’t want anyone to walk away disappointed in such a recommendation. “When a community comes together for a common purpose,” says Lemley, “and there’s passion involved and it spreads. [When] everybody networks and shares the information, I think everybody benefits.”

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