Everybody Eats Philly opens its first location, in Chester. The mission to fight food insecurity is the same

Stephanie Willis (left) and Malik Ali hold hoagies inside Vittles food hall

Everybody Eats directors and chefs Stephanie Willis (left) and Malik Ali hold a special hoagie order at their new Chester food hall, Vittles. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

What’s important for us to know about Philly’s suburbs?

Everybody Eats Philly, a nonprofit dedicated to defeating food insecurity, finally has a permanent place to call home in the city of Chester.

The initiative started back in 2020 in response to the pandemic and racial justice protests. A group of Black chefs noticed there wasn’t enough access to fresh food, especially after some of the grocery stores were damaged.

“So I reached out to my friends to see what we can do,” said Everybody Eats co-founder Stephanie Willis. “We’re all chefs, so naturally we said we can feed everybody. That’s what we do and make sure everybody eats. And that’s how we started.”

Stephanie Willis stands inside Vittles food hall
Stephanie Willis describes the businesses coming to Vittles food hall, including a Black-owned specialty coffee brewer, a dessert stand. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

After feeding more than 600 families in June 2020 during its first food drive — or “activation,” as the chefs call it — the group took on the larger issue of food insecurity.

“Food insecurity is still very, very real. People are literally having to choose between feeding their families and paying a bill, which should not happen. So, we’re here to lighten the load a bit,” Willis said.

Since then, the group — which includes Willis, Kurt Evans, Malik Ali, Aziza Young, and Gregory Headen — has been to San Antonio, Cleveland, and New York City, among other places.

Now, after two years of giving away food in Philadelphia and across the country, the chefs behind the project have a physical location at Chester’s Vittles Food Court. Everybody Eats cut the ribbon to celebrate its grand opening on Feb. 5.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Inside Vittles food hall
Vittles food hall in Chester, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Willis first looked at the space before Everybody Eats was even created, though she wasn’t in a position to set up there by herself at the time. But once the nonprofit got rolling, the chefs of Everybody Eats decided that a place of their own would be crucial in helping them sustain themselves and prevent the scramble for kitchen space.

Philadelphia was pricier, and the location in Chester had a lot to offer plus close proximity to I-95, which would give them more of an opportunity to help communities.

“This is literally 20 minutes from the city. We have a lot of space, a lot more space than we would ever get in Philly. And this is also an underserved neighborhood,” Willis said.

Everybody Eats uses its kitchens at Vittles Food Court as its headquarters and also operates four counters serving seafood, tacos, soul food, burgers, and healthy options, among others, to help the nonprofit sustain itself. A lot of the proceeds go toward those “food activations.”

Parking spots are seen at Vittles food hall
Vittles food hall in Chester, Pa., has a drive-thru, a walk-up, and plenty of seating. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“We kind of want to kill the stigma in our community specifically that receiving help is a bad thing. Like, we’re coming from the neighborhood that you’re from, we look like you, we talk like you, and we’re coming with a vibe. We usually have a DJ in the summertime. It’s literally a cookout. It’s a good time — it’s not just, `Take this food and go,’” Willis said.

Prior to Everybody Eats’ landing at the food court, the food drives took a great deal of effort to pull off: finding kitchen space, renting a refrigerated truck, even renting a storage unit.

“All of these activations come out of pocket. That well kind of ran dry, but we wanted to be able to sustain ourselves. So here we are in Chester, with our own space,” Willis said.

The chefs no longer have to go back and forth across the city to get what they need. Willis added that the grand opening at Vittles Food Court was a success, and that there are more plans in the works.

Parking spots are seen at Vittles food hall
Vittles food hall in Chester, Pa., has a drive-thru, a walk-up, and plenty of seating. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“We’re actually putting a community fridge outside, which is gonna start being built tomorrow. So we have a really great relationship with Widener, and I know when I was a college student, I did not have a lot of money. So having access to fresh produce and things like that is awesome,” Willis said.

Malik Ali, a co-founder of Everybody Eats, got involved with the organization from its very beginning. He was a part of that first group of chefs that came together in June 2020.

Ali said it took less 72 hours to pull together the first event. And from that day forward, he emphasized the need to continually feed the community.

“We’re just looking to bring everything we can as far as fighting food insecurity. Another thing we’re doing is helping kids, basically teaching them a way in the kitchen. Out here, the culinary program in the high school is down, and they have no culinary instructor,” he said.

Ali is hoping that Everybody Eats can pull together an afterschool program for the kids, so that they can learn the basics.

“We’re just showing them you can make something out of anything. So, we’re actually working to bring that program. And just looking forward to doing everything we can to help Chester out and our community as well,” Ali said.

Everybody Eats has people to hold down some of its stations, but Ali said that the group is still looking for someone to hold down the vegan station.

The nonprofit isn’t all alone in Vittles Food Court. If you walk through the doors, you’ll surely be greeted with a warm, friendly smile from Ray Tillery of Ray’s Diner.

“I make breakfast. I try to give you that home-cooked flavor, home-cooked taste, and just try to do the best I can to get people good food for a good price,” Tillery said.

Raymond Tillery behind the counter
Ray Tillery behind the counter of his business, Ray’s Diner, known for its Mickey Mouse pancake special, at Vittles food hall in Chester, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

He’s been in the building for two years now, but he’s been a chef in the community for 30 years. This is his first time owning a diner; Tillery was one of the first vendors at the food court.

“He’s withstood all of the commotion and everything that’s went down. They were closed for about a year and a half, and he’s here with us again. He’s like my uncle. He’s hilarious. Love him. Definitely a cornerstone in Chester, for sure,” Willis said.

The bed of a vintage truck repurposed as a stage at Vittles food hall
The bed of a vintage truck acts as a stage at Vittles food hall in Chester, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Tillery said business has been rough, but he enjoys the atmosphere.

Of course, he’s hoping to sell a lot of food alongside his new neighbors, but he hopes that together they can accomplish another mission too: “Put a lot of smiles on people’s faces.”

Saturdays just got more interesting.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal