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Food For Thought, No Bill Attached!: Shanaka’s Story

I walked into a restaurant. All the tables were occupied. To my right, were six well-dressed men in suits. A homeless man with all his possessions in a shopping cart was parked right next to them. They were all digging into a hot meal from the buffet. I glanced around the room and spotted Shanaka Fernando sitting on the far left corner. He looked like he was busy with someone, so I waited a while.

“Hi, you know how things work here?” said a tall American, handing a plate to me; “just help yourself to whatever you want and find a seat”.

I told him I was here to meet Shanaka. “You can do both” he replied, leading me by the elbow, with my plate in hand, to Shanaka’s table.

My lovely host wrapped up his meeting swiftly; my American guide was back, this time with some delicious hot chocolate. I immediately got a sense of Shanaka’s love for people just by the way he introduced everyone. He made people feel appreciated without patronising them.

My American guide was a micro biology teacher at a university. The waiter was a student from Sangroor in Punjab. The lady replenishing the food at the buffet was from Ethiopia and fasting for Ramzan with all that food around her. A shy young Sudanese refugee hung around the kitchen, waiting for instructions. The Sri Lankan head chef shared a joke with an elderly local from Abbotsford where the restaurant is located.

He’s also the resident DJ, and played western classical music for the restaurants patrons. The coffee counter was manned by a Frenchman. Faces from every corner of the world greeted me with big smiles, warm handshakes and tons of questions. They all work, volunteer or simply drop in for a meal at Shanaka’s restaurant.

In 1989, Shanaka moved from Sri Lanka to Australia to pursue law but dropped out to travel the world. In 2000, Shanaka invested his life savings to put into practice a radical idea that he calls ‘Lentil As Anything’. A ‘pay as you feel’ restaurant where anyone can walk in, eat to their hearts content and put as much money in the donation box as they feel the experience was worth.

“I wanted people to learn more about their community. And what better way to do it than to share a meal?” he explains.

Shanaka fought the Australian government, (while living out of a tent) for the goods and services tax applicable on any transaction. But because there was no bill handed to the customer, Shanaka argued that they should be exempt. He won.

More recently, the convent where one of his restaurants is located refused to renew their lease. Thirty thousand Melbourne residents signed a petition to keep them there. Another victory.

Shanaka has made a believer out of all his skeptics. Lentil As Anything now has four branches in Melbourne, employs 80 people and has dozens of volunteers. Each week they serve thousands of meals that are not followed by a bill.

Lentil also trains refugees and helps some of their struggling student volunteers find sponsors. The vegetarian food is delicious and their patrons ability to pay or not remains irrelevant. It has become a symbol of Melbourne’s multi cultural society and spirit.

“I think the most important thing I’ve learnt is the weakness of beaurocracy and the power of a supportive community. I had no experience in the hospitality industry and I’d never anticipated being in a battle with Australian government’s richest department. I just had an idea that needed to be proved in the real world”

Ten years on, I think he’s proved his point.

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24 Responses to “Food For Thought, No Bill Attached!: Shanaka’s Story”

  1. Angad says:

    very very fascinating yet again tithiya, wonder how you find these people?! must be awful lot of research…. must add that in malaysia and australia there is an south indian foundation called annalakshmi that works on the same concept. very bold! kudos to fernando!

  2. Robin Caddick says:

    tithiya – have you heard of jamie oliver in uk? his “Feed me Better” campaign was about getting parents and the govt to pay attention to healthy food rather than the usual junk. he also created the fifteen foundation, where he trained 15 people who had criminal background / drug abusers to work in a restaurant. its now a chain with 4-5 outlets across the world. would love to see him featured as well.

  3. very good work tithiya! read your column in the paper today. where are you headed next?

  4. Dave Esrock says:

    @robin jamie is already a star in the uk. there is already enough thats known about him the US and UK.

  5. Dhruv says:

    Shanaka Fernandos work is truly inspiring… looking forward to more such stories.

  6. Greg Kunin says:

    These guys are like the radiohead of the hospitality business. just like they allowed fans to download their tracks from their album in rainbows at any price tehy wanted. and it was perfectly fine to not pay at all. nice model! i am sure customers end up paying more than they would.

  7. Mukundan says:

    I am not sure whether this model lasts, and not just because there are cheapskates all over. for instance, if i was paying what i wished, i would be under pressure to pay a lot of money. maybe i would do it once to prove to myself and whoever i am dining with about how charitable i am. i am not sure one would do this again and again. would you? it sort of puts pressure on you. what do you guys think?

  8. Jash Sayani says:

    radiohead or music stars can afford to do this because they would make tonnes more money from touring. the restaurant business is a whole different thing.

  9. sameer sachdeva says:

    mukundan: you maybe right, but then maybe you arent the typical customer set at this place, and even if the problem existed, the way to solve it would be just paying a listed cash price.

  10. Bertil Shi says:

    i like the idea but IMHO isnt this between charity and business?

  11. prashant rajvaidya says:

    this sounds like just the thing for restaurateurs looking for a way to combine social entrepreneurship with a love of cooking.

  12. The wiener deewan in vienna is also famous for this concept. its got pakistani cuisine.

  13. Murali Veeraiyan says:

    what a great idea! i think such ideas generate trust within the community.

  14. Daniel Hatt says:

    Street musicians are a perfect examples of pay what you feel model succeeding.

  15. Bhushan R says:

    tithiya: just stumbled on your blog and have been reading your posts for the last 3 hours. what an amazing project! truly inspiring. congratulations on this epic journey

  16. janardan mirani says:

    wikipedia too!

  17. Jamie Mannveille says:

    wonder why some of you are worried about whether you can build a restaurant empire out of this? i am certain shanaka fernando never looked at this way.

  18. anirudh chauhan says:

    donationware or all open source s/w is also pay what you want model – anirudh chauhan

  19. Devendra Mhatre says:

    great story. lentil as anything is an inspiration.

  20. Sarah Ladchartabi says:

    the national restaurant association (yes there is one) in the US in collab with food donation connection have a service where the donate left over / surplus food for needly. its a great solution towards sustainablity.

  21. Tarik says:

    such initiatives should get a tax exemption. kudos

  22. jiten kulkarni says:

    there is no comparision between the music industry and the restaurant business. music artists have alternate sources of revenue that allow them do subsidize this sort of things, the restaurant has only one business, feeding people and making money

  23. sis says:

    you are the single most inspiring person i know! God Bless!

  24. Aian says:

    very fascinating yet again tithiya.

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