Imagine going out to dinner with your friends in Melbourne’s St Kilda, or Sydney’s Newtown. Imagine enjoying a delicious three course meal, served to you by friendly and dedicated wait-staff. Now imagine asking that same wait-staff for the bill and being told that there is no set price to pay. Instead, they ask that you pay what you feel the meal is worth and what you can afford. Sound too good to be true?
Well, it isn’t. The scenario above is played out daily in four restaurants across Melbourne and Sydney. They are part of the social enterprise Lentil as Anything (LAA). LAA is the brain child of Shanaka Fernando, originally from Sri Lanka. Growing up, Fernando was confronted daily by the vast income disparity in his home country. While his family had access to an abundance of food, there were people starving just down the road from where he lived. Fernando was convinced there had to be a better way.
After travelling the world, stopping in various indigenous communities along the way, Fernando came up with a solution – universal pay-as-you-feel. To prove its viability, he opened up his first by-donation restaurant at the turn of the new millennium. Initially, his customers were incredulous. Here was a fledgling restaurant, attempting to run with no guaranteed source of income. Meanwhile, upmarket restaurants left right and centre were closing down in their first year of operation. Surely, Fernando’s operation was doomed to fail.
Nearly twenty years have passed since that first restaurant opened in St Kilda. And Fernando can conclusively say that his business model has been a roaring success. He has opened up three more restaurants (two in Melbourne and one in Sydney), as well as a several side projects, such as Open Space and the Inconvenience Store. Open Space is an inclusive and supportive space where members of the public can run by-donation events and workshops. The Inconvenience Store stocks donated and rescued grocery items, in return for (you guessed it!) pay-as-you-feel.
What all of these locations have in common is that absolutely everyone is welcome, regardless of their financial means. The main objective is to provide a place where people from different backgrounds can come together. No one is judged by how much or little they are able to pay. In fact, there are a myriad of non-material ways to contribute. All locations are volunteer run and are always accepting new wait-staff or kitchen hands. In addition, community members are encouraged to share their individual gifts, such as maintenance, gardening or artistic skills.
The LAA business model could be considered growth focussed. But not in the way we think of growth in our current economic system. Instead, it strives to increase social capital by connecting people via an equal platform. As stated on the LAA website, “the underemployed, the homeless, refugees and the disenfranchised are all given an equal opportunity to gain skills and help their fellow humans at Lentil As Anything”.
And since you can’t have a healthy community without a healthy environment, LAA is also working on environmental sustainability; the ultimate goal being complete independence from the commercial food production system. This is being tackled through initiatives on both sides of the food chain. At one end, LAA tries to procure local, seasonal produce and rescued food. At the other end, food waste is minimised by donating leftover food and composting food scraps.
I have personally been volunteering at the St Kilda LAA location for the last couple of months and can attest to the richness of its social fabric. Customers tend to be visitors from all over the world, as well as locals from varying backgrounds. People regularly share a table with complete strangers and strike up a lively conversation. Friendships have definitely been made over chai and the ever popular vegan lentil burger. Furthermore, the wait staff is consistently friendly, because they truly want to be there. In turn, the customers tend to be more patient and forgiving of the occasional order trip-ups. It truly begs the question, why wouldn’t we switch to a universal pay-as-you-can economy?
To find out more about his journey to founding LAA, watch Shanaka Fernando’s Ted Talk