Lentil As Anything’s social conscience dining
Two years since opening in Newtown, Sydney, there are still crowds queuing outside vegetarian eatery, Lentil As Anything, to get their ‘place at the table’ most nights.
Founded on the very principle that “everyone deserves a place at the table”, the socially responsible chain’s five branches attract a broad spectrum of society, where everyone is equal regardless of their bank balance.
With four flagship branches in Melbourne, the Lentil As Anything concept encourages a more mindful approach to sharing a meal with others in your community, and fosters appreciative reflection on the experience of eating. What goes into your meal, apart from the raw ingredients? Elements such as love, culinary skills, creativity, time, health-consciousness, even compassion – in that no animals are harmed to create their meals.
The meaning of the meal becomes greater than the meal itself.
And similarly, you are led to contemplate the collective experience of dining with family or friends in a room with strangers who are also dining with family or friends. The atmosphere is that of warmth and inclusion, where the wider community is greater than each of its members.
Diners pay what they feel their meal is worth, or whatever they can afford – although $12 is the suggested minimum donation.
This noble idea has been called a “social experiment in reciprocity” that encourages us to think about – and demonstrate – the simple, yet deeply meaningful attributes of kindness, equality, respect, generosity and trust.
Lentil As Anything was founded by Sri Lankan, Shanaka Fernando, who calls himself a “social challenger”. Fleeing civil war in his country, he travelled extensively through developing nations and became passionate about addressing social justice issues. Coming to Australia in 1989, he opened his first Lentil As Anything in Melbourne’s St Kilda in 2000 – at the time, he was homeless, living in a tent on St Kilda beach. In 2007, he won the Australian of the Year Local Hero Award, and has since been the subject of documentaries, given a TED talk, written his memoirs and featured on a postage stamp!
His daring business model relies on the generosity of its patrons to pay for each restaurant’s rent, utilities, wages and stock. Most restaurant staff are volunteers and Lentil As Anything is committed to hiring the long-term unemployed, interns and the marginalised, including refugees.
While Lentil As Anything’s approach has admirable ideals and is clearly popular, it has also unfortunately been subject to abuse, with widespread media coverage of customers eating then leaving without paying. In 2015, many of these diners were reportedly young music festival-goers in Melbourne and the experience prompted the brand to remind patrons about the costs of running each branch via a Facebook post, and calling for their community’s support. Whether people have heeded the message is not certain…
In the Lentil As Anything microcosm, customers and staff become equal and each can contribute to creating the kind of culture and environment they want to experience. This is seen when customers step in to help in the kitchen when a restaurant is under staffed.
The Lentil As Anything dining experience attempts to create a sense of ownership and solidarity: we’re all in this together. It’s a metaphor for so many aspects of life and living. Each of us has our role to play in our life, in society, on the planet. The more we participate and contribute to something, the more we get out of it.
Lentil as Anything
391 King St,
Newtown NSW 2042
(02) 8283 5580
Photo Courtesy of Paul Chalker