by Rebecca Cleaver
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. It’s just naturally assumed that people will come in and 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 hundred dollar notes sticking out their pocket.”
Matt is the NSW Manager of Lentil, and the man responsible for bringing the project here from Melbourne. He first approached Lentil’s founder, Shanaka Fernando, about opening a Sydney branch 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 just has a vibrancy nowhere else in Sydney has.”
The gamble paid off: when Lentil first opened its doors on King St 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’s students decked out in old band t-shirts, sun-kissed backpackers, local buskers and musicians, and older bohemian-types.
It’s 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.
“But of course it’s important to have money coming in because it means we’ll be able to still be here in five years’ time,” Matt says.
Shanaka opened the first Lentil as Anything in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda in 2000. He had a vision for a space where people from all walks of life could enjoy a meal and some company regardless of how much money they had in their pocket.
The restaurant has come a long way since then, with branches opening in Footscray and The Abbotsford Convent, both in Melbourne.
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, fits 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,” Matt says. “It really is the spiritual home of Lentil. It’s where it all started.”
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.
“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.
“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,” Matt says.
Jeebak Bajracharya is a 29-year-old commerce graduate from Nepal who works as Lentil’s floor manager a few times 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 in impact in 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.”
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% 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 explains. “The last thing we want to be doing is importing oranges from overseas when there’s so much that’s being 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.”
It’s kind of a catch-22. Newtown has certainly embraced Lentil, 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 have somewhere to go where they can enjoy the space and have a nice meal, regardless of whether they have money or not.
“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’s 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.
“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.”
Lentil as Anything is now part of the Newtown café scene for all the right reasons. Photograph by Rebecca Cleaver