Melbourne’s iconic Lentil as Anything pay-as-you-feel vegetarian restaurant chain has raised $150,000 through a GoFundMe campaign, to help it survive during the COVID-19 crisis.
The business, which has restaurants in Abbotsford Convent, Newtown, St Kilda and Thornbury, serves up healthy meals and invites diners to pay whatever they feel they’re worth, or whatever they can afford at the time, even if that’s nothing.
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the team has been continuing to feed people in need, the GoFundMe page says.
“The last six months have seen us serving predominantly those most in need, and therefore least able to make a purely financial contribution,” it explains.
“Fixed costs like rent and utilities are causing us to go backwards financially, while pre-COVID expenses remain largely unpaid.”
This is the business’ “biggest financial challenge to date”, the fundraising page says.
“We need to raise $150,000 by the end of October, or face going into administration, and likely closing our doors forever.”
And the community delivered. Just four days after the campaign launched, it has surpassed its goal, reaching just over $158,000 at the time of writing.
Now, the restaurant chain is working towards a revised target of $300,000.
“We had no idea that the support was so strong,” Lentil As Anything founder Shanaka Fernando tells SmartCompany.
The COVID-19 crisis, particularly in Melbourne, has been challenging for his business, to say the least.
“It has really called for the hospitality industry to adapt very dramatically,” he says.
“We feel that we have done pretty well under the circumstances, providing lots of free and affordable meals for people, thanks to our staff being on JobKeeper,” he explains.
The team has also focused on food rescue, using perfectly good ingredients that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
“We’re getting a lot of rescue produce that has really brought down the cost — we’re able to produce a meal far cheaper than we would under normal circumstances,” Fernando says.
But, ultimately, this hasn’t been enough to keep Lentil As Anything in the black. So, the founder says, the team turned to the community that has always had its back.
All of this is happening in the year the business turns 20, and “there’s goodwill over 20 years,” he notes.
“Every five years, we have a crippling existential crisis,” he adds.
The pay-as-you-feel model means this restaurant chain operates with a higher level of risk than most. It’s unpredictable, Fernando says. So, every now and then things get a bit tricky.
“When we put a call out, the community that has benefited from us being here and doing what we do, really responds quite strongly.”
The COVID-19 crisis has simply led to “an extended version of that”, he says.
The flow of donations shows there is huge support for this business. But, Fernando notes that the GoFundMe page isn’t seeing people donating huge amounts.
While there have been a few big-ticket backers — one person donated $3,000 and another threw $2,000 in the pot — the majority are donating $5, $10 or $20.
“It’s not wealthy people donating hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he notes.
“Lentil evens the playing field with what we do, and it’s not the wealth that gains access to our community, it’s the love and the generosity people bring.”
It looks like the business will live to see another day. But, if it ever did have to close the doors for good, it would be a loss not only for the team, but for Melbourne as a whole, Fernando says.
“Lentil has formed a hole in the veil of capitalism and let the love in … it would be a shame to see that hole closed,” he says.
“It’s given Melbourne an identity as a gentle, giving and inclusive city.”