Newtown embraces the restaurant with no prices
He calls it “the crazy vegetarian restaurant with no prices on its menus”, but Matt Pettit was always confident Sydneysiders would embrace the Lentil as Anything philosophy.
The restaurant’s “pay as you feel” system means customers pay whatever they want for their meal – whether it’s $2 or $200. In some cases, Matt says, it’s nothing. And that’s okay. “Lentil is about generosity and giving and sharing. We don’t really focus on the money. We assume people will pay what they can afford.”
“Some people really can’t pay much and we’re just as happy for them to come in and grab a meal as someone who has $100 notes sticking out their pocket.”
Matt is the NSW Manager of Lentil, which was founded by Shanaka Fernando in 2000. Shanaka is a Sri Lankan-born Australian restaurateur and self-described “social challenger”. In 2007, he was presented with the Australian of the Year Local Hero Award by the then Prime Minister John Howard.
Matt first approached Shanaka about opening a Lentil as Anything in Sydney last year.
“Shanaka was worried that Sydney people may not take to Lentil in the way Melbourne people had. But I had no doubt it would work, especially in Newtown. It has a vibrancy like nowhere else in Sydney.”
The gamble paid off. When Lentil first opened its doors on King Street in May, an eager queue of over 100 people lined the footpath. And the hunger for what Lentil has to offer has only grown over time.
On any given night, the generous seating area is overflowing with an eclectic mix of customers. There are students decked out in old band t-shirts, sun-kissed backpackers, local buskers and musicians, and older bohemian types. They’re the usual suspects as far as free food is concerned. But if Lentil’s donation box is anything to go by, most people are paying a fair price for their meal.
“The generosity of Sydney people is just fantastic. Money isn’t something we focus on; that’s why the donation box is there, to create anonymity,” Matt says. “But, of course, it’s important to have money coming in because it means we’ll be able to be here in five years’ time.”
Shanaka opened the first Lentil as Anything in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. He had a vision for a space where people from all walks of life could enjoy a meal and company regardless of how much money they had.
It has come a long way since then, with restaurants in Footscray and the community precinct on the Yarra River known as the Abbotsford Convent. Newtown’s Lentil is the largest yet, with a sprawling warehouse space that seats over 70 and serves between 250 and 350 people a night. The original St Kilda space, which is still there, sits only 24.
“It’s a tiny little shop with a little table out the back, which used to be the humpy where the original chef lived. It really is the spiritual home of Lentil. It’s where it all started,” Matt says of the original restaurant.
Shanaka told a TEDx audience in 2012 he once watched a High Court judge and a homeless man share a meal at the St Kilda restaurant, something that wouldn’t have been possible if not for the Lentil philosophy. Matt agrees.
“There’s no better way to break down barriers than by sharing a meal. It’s why we have communal tables. It really brings back the sense of community that has slowly been eroding in Australia,” he said.
“People love it. They walk away thinking there is generosity in the world and they think about doing just that little bit more. And the more that’s shared with people, the better.”
Many customers donate their time as a way to pay back the kindness and hospitality Lentil has shown them. The restaurant has some paid staff, but it wouldn’t run without the hard work of volunteers in the kitchen and on the floor.
Like all things Lentil, Matt sees the volunteer program as a way to give back to the community. Many of the volunteers are refugees and people taking part in work-for-the-dole. “We had one volunteer when we first started; she came in and she was working every night. She was always the last one to leave. One day the chef told her to go home and it turned out she didn’t have a home to go to. So we gave her a job and now she’s doing head chef work. She’s moved into her own place and doing great,” he says.
“In this day and age it’s really hard to get that first job or that first chance, so if we’re able to give people that and they jump on it that’s great. It’s what Lentil’s all about.”
Jeebak Bajracharya is a 29-year-old commerce graduate from Nepal who works as Lentil’s floor manager several days a week.
At the moment he’s overseeing Lentil on the Rocks, a mocktail bar project that aims to create an alcohol-free alternative to the Sydney bar scene. Jeebak is keen to learn as much as he can about social enterprises like Lentil so he can take some of those lessons home with him to Nepal.
“Social entrepreneurship is a growing trend, here and overseas. It’s just about doing good, making an impact on society. Hospitality lends itself really well to creating social change.”
“It’s a good environment to exchange ideas and people from all walks of life can come and feel like they’re at home,” he says.
It’s also a great place to address the ethics of food.
Sydney’s Lentil is the first to go entirely vegan (the rest are vegetarian) and up to 40 per cent of the food served is donated. The rest is bought from local businesses and farmers. “The menu changes every day but we also change the style of the food according to the season,” Matt says. “The last thing we want to be doing is importing oranges from overseas when there’s so much that’s grown and produced locally. “We’ve got one volunteer who’s found a worm farm for our food scraps. Someone else recycles our oil and sells it back to other kitchens. It’s about doing things as clean and green as possible.
“It couldn’t happen without the support of the community. Just today we had a girl who bought some fruit at the markets and decided she wanted to share it and gave it to us.”
However, Lentil is in a kind of Catch-22. Newtown has certainly embraced it, but the people who really need a cheap meal aren’t likely to live in the gentrified inner west. That’s why Matt is keen to use proceeds from the Newtown branch to help set up other projects.
“Momentum is growing and I’d like to find a second site in Sydney, perhaps in a more disadvantaged area. It could really help families in areas with high unemployment because it would mean they would have somewhere to go where they could enjoy the space and have a nice meal, regardless of whether they have money or not,” he says. “I remember chatting to a guy in Footscray and he told me if it weren’t for Lentil, he wouldn’t have had anything to eat that day. That restaurant has never made money, but we’re not going to close it because they’re the people who need it most.”
“I think the people of Newtown would be happy to know their money is going to help somebody who is in desperate need for it.”
Matt is working with the Marrickville Youth Resource Centre to help give local young people some basic hospitality and barista skills in the hope they might be able to open up their own little Lentil café. There are also loose plans to set up Lentils in Canberra, Gosford and Brisbane. “Lentil really is the collective voice of all the people who get involved. And there are so many people out there who love the concept and want to be a part of it.”
“I know Shanaka has a vision for Lentil and where he wants it to be and I hope together we can help grow that vision and have 30, 40, 60 Lentils all around the globe in five years time. This is just the first step.”
Matt has even been talking with Jeebak about setting up a Lentil in Nepal.
“I was warned when I first started working here that Lentil will change you for the better,” he says. “I come from an advertising background, and I know there are times when I have to check myself and remember that it’s not about me. It’s not about getting recognition, it’s about doing things for other people.”
“Three years ago I wouldn’t have thought that way. Lentil has changed me in a very profound way. I think it does that for everyone.”
Jeebak’s new Lentil on the Rocks Mocktail Bar opened last Friday in the gallery space above the Lentil as Anything restaurant. Definitely go and check it out!
For more information on Lentil as Anything head to www.lentilasanything.com or head down for a feed to 3910 King Street Newtown.
Words by Rebecca Cleaver