The game escalated when a member called Niamh Pickle won a competition Illman hosted in the group, and she decided she wanted to feed homeless people with the money. She posted her table in Salisbury with Illman’s help and group members sent her food, throwing in an extra 25 pizzas in takeaway boxes to hand out. A new endeavour was born.
Fast forward six years to a Britain gripped by the cost of living crisis and it has become such a success that it’s about to become a monthly endeavour – and Illman is even running a poll on the group to let people pick where to run the next game.
There are more than 738,000 members in Illman’s Facebook groups now – 564,000 in the public group and 174,000 in the private equivalent – and he estimates that they are growing at between 3,000 and 5,000 members a day. He reckons the number will top one million by May.
“Everyone wants to help, everyone wants to make other peoples’ day a bit better,” says Illman, from Fareham, Hampshire.
“People are eager to help and want to help but it’s just giving them a way to help. People want to go and feed homeless people but they don’t know how. They can contact their local charities but they don’t really know what to do or how to help. But this is such a simple way of doing things.
“Literally they can sit on their sofa at home and within three or four clicks feed a homeless person.”
The idea may have “died off” during Covid but, right now, Wetherspoons the Game! is having a bit of a moment.
Illman and his team of 23 moderators managed to mobilise followers to deliver 200 sausage and mash dinners in just 12 minutes in Brighton in December.
Later that month, the group delivered 100 breakfast wraps in nine minutes. 100 burgers and chips in eight minutes and sold the whole pub out of snacks in 12 minutes in Portsmouth, Illman says.
All the food went to a homeless charity to distribute after Illman got in touch ahead of time to arrange pick up. He also sets up an Amazon wishlist to help people donate sanitary products and other essentials.
Illman is also keen not to put the hospitality staff under even more strain and prepares pubs before the orders roll in.
“Once the location has been decided, I’ll contact the pubs in the area and make sure we can do it and I’ll contact the local charities and see if they can distribute the food for us,” he says.
“They all seem to get on board and really enjoy it. When we did Birmingham the other day the kitchen manager actually came in on his day off to help out. The area manager came in too and was down in the kitchen making burgers to chip in and do their bit.
“The aspect of helping homeless people has been going absolutely phenomenally. We’re going to start doing it every month now – before lockdown it was every other month.”
It’s a success 42-year-old Illman could never have predicted.
He was homeless himself back in 2018 when he started the group, sleeping in his car before moving into temporary accommodation.
“I’d had a really rough year, I was temporarily homeless myself after I split with my wife while I had testicular cancer,” he says.
“Then I started a few things to put me in a better mood.”
Now, Illman has ambitions to go further.
He never expected for the group to reel in thousands of followers.
In fact, when he set up the group he said he would get a Wetherspoons tattoo at 10,000 members. Now the ink sits prominently on his arm.
At 500,000 members he said he’d change his middle name to Spoons, that’s next on the list to be done. “Stupid things like that, that’s what I’m known for, and I have to go through with it,” he says.
Time will tell what he’ll do if the group does reach a million. But until then Illman is focusing on getting as many cut-price burgers and chips and breakfast wraps to people who need them.
“I want to get out there and feed more homeless people and regularly hit more countries than England like Scotland, Wales and Ireland,” says Illman. “I want to get more countries fed and as much awareness as possible.
“It definitely helps with my mental health as well. I was in a hard place back in 2018 as you could imagine. I think keeping the groups going has kept me going.”