As a true "people's-choice" award, the Grove City Area Chamber of Commerce's annual Business of the Year honor reflects the community's support of the recipient by popular vote.

For the second year in a row, Lilly's Kitchen Table restaurant was named the winner.

But the community showed its support in an even more meaningful and important way after Christopher Cope, 33, the chef at Lilly's Kitchen Table and son of owner Tracey Cope, died Feb. 3 in an accident on Interstate 71.

"The way this community has responded and supported us in our time of need, there's no way we can put into words how much it means to us," said Sarah Cope, Christopher's wife and the front-of-the house manager at Lilly's. "Grove City is the best place to live. It's a community that's always there for each other."

"The outpouring of support we've received has been overwhelming," Tracey Cope said. "We're a family-owned business and our customers are like family to us."

Lilly's clearly was going to win the Business of the Year award even before the accident occurred, chamber executive director Shawn Conrad said.

"We began the voting last September during Arts in the Alley," she said. "About half of the votes come from then and the other half are made online. We already knew they were going to be the winner, even before Christopher's accident.

"This award is a true people's-choice award. It's by popular vote. Lilly's winning the award twice shows how appreciated and loved they are in the community."

In addition, the chamber board of directors announced at the Feb. 23 annual meeting the award would be renamed in honor of Christopher Cope.

"Winning the award was a huge surprise," Tracey Cope said. "When they announced they were naming the award after my son, well, I just started bawling. It's an incredible way to honor him."

Christopher Cope had a passion for the restaurant business, Sarah Cope said.

"He was so creative and what he loved the best was preparing a dish for someone and watching their expression when they took that first bite," she said.

"Chris was funny. The thing he would tell anyone was, 'I'm going to make you up something special, and you're going to love it,' " Tracey Cope said. "He had found his niche and worked really hard at his craft.

"It's still hard for me to go in the restaurant. Chris was such an important part of it. I'm still figuring out how we're going to go forward. It was going to be his restaurant someday."

"It was hard for me to go back at first," Sarah Cope said. "But I went back not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I'm able to get a lot of comfort coming back because Chris' spirit is still there and because our customers are like family."

Tracey Cope has owned Lilly's Kitchen Table on Broadway for nearly seven years. She worked there for several years under two previous owners before buying the restaurant.

"It was a dream come true for me to own a restaurant," she said. "There aren't many old-style diners like ours any more. We're the type of place where you don't come in just for a meal, but for a conversation with friends. That's the atmosphere we've tried to establish."

Other awards announced at the chamber's annual meeting included:

* Ambassador of the Year: Catherine Roebuck, First Service Federal Credit Union.

* Heartland Bank Heart of the Chamber: Mount Carmel Health System.

* Spirit of the Chamber: Charlene McFarland, WesBanco Bank.

* Entrepreneur of the Year: Matt Yerkes, Cultivate.

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