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HindustanTimes Mon,20 Oct 2014
Free meals exist
Tithiya Sharma, Hindustan Times
September 11, 2010
First Published: 23:03 IST(11/9/2010)
Last Updated: 23:29 IST(18/9/2010)

Around the world in 54 weeks

Destination 12: Melbourne

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.

(Tithiya Sharma is on a year-long journey across the globe to find 100 everyday heroes — and hopefully herself — along the way. To follow Tithiya's journey, log on to www.hindustantimes.com/100heroesproject www.hindustantimes.com/100heroesproject )


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