Built to Shine
A Business Doing Pleasure
Since the first Lentil as Anything opened in St Kilda in 2000, the restaurant has expanded to Abbotsford and Thornbury. Its pay-as-you-feel business model and open acceptance of patrons from all walks of life have taken it from its origins as a counterculture favourite to a Melbourne foodie institution.
Shanaka Fernando moved to Melbourne in 1989 after growing up in Sri Lanka. He describes his upbringing and home in Sri Lanka as one with a backdrop of very contrasting cultures, “with beautiful, warm human connections,” while at the same time enduring a crippling civil war.
After his first stay in Melbourne, he then travelled the world for six years, where he spent time in rainforest communities in the Amazon and Southeast Asia. The first thing he noticed was the warm welcome he received from these communities. “Everyone was so deeply connected with each other and the environment around them,” he says.
“I was quite taken with how openly and generously I was embraced. I was a stranger, I could have been a threat to them – they always provided the best they could for me.”
He was so moved by the sense of kindness and hospitality that he wanted to do something to communicate those values in a Western context upon moving back to Melbourne in 1999.
“I thought making food available to the community, and using that as a tool to connect people, build trust and to rely on generosity would be an interesting experiment,” he says.
When he opened that first Lentil as Anything in St Kilda the sense of inclusion and community he hoped the restaurant would promote could not be compromised. “To me it was the only way life could be lived,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine where life could take us if we focused on an individual-based existence and used status and material possessions to communicate who we are.”
In the beginning, the restaurant attracted patrons that felt marginalised by society. It was part-and-parcel of celebrating and encouraging people’s differences. “Especially the eccentricities that people have been shy to express because they are trying to fit into a society that has set fairly narrow boundaries of expression,” explains Fernando
“There were individuals who would come and eat and not contribute in any way, just to see if that would have a strong enough effect on us to retard or destroy the operation. It must have been very frustrating for them to find that it didn’t,” he recalls.
“This operation of accepting the community really made people feel extraordinarily comfortable and safe to be themselves,” he says. “That was a priceless asset.”
It was an operation he was proud to devote his life to. He describes it as a “battle between money serving us, or us serving money”.
“We found a way of putting money in a place where it didn’t enjoy power over us. There was no distinction between life and work,” he adds. “It was all life, but we worked like hell to make it possible.”
For the first couple of years, he worked from sunrise to sunset before returning to the Elwood Tea Tree Reserve where he lived in a tent, which a Target manager had given him for free because he was so taken with Fernando’s “cheekiness”.
He puts Lentil’s rise to success and expansion across Melbourne down to perseverance and commitment to its principles.
“Whatever people threw at us, whatever scrutiny was inflicted on us, we weathered that and we stood our ground and kept doing what we believed in, and focused on the simple operation of making food available to the community,” he says.
What was at first quite a novelty business became a normal mealtime routine for a growing number of Melburnians.
“It built itself into the instincts of a lot of people. They realised that this is not a gimmick, this is actually how life can be lived,” he says.
Winning an award and the introduction into the Victorian Curriculum – where schools around Melbourne are taught about its values and business model – also helped bring more customers through the door.
Since then, even very mainstream and conservative people have been frequenting Lentil as Anything, some of them so unlikely that they have surprised Fernando and made him realise, “Gosh, this thing that was originally quite radical is – disappointingly sometimes – no longer such a radical thing,” he says.
Fernando believes the generosity of its people is what makes a city like Melbourne one where a business like Lentil as Anything can thrive. “I experienced a sense of generosity when I first arrived in Melbourne as a stranger from a different culture.”
In addition to this, there’s a warm heart and a love for art. “When there’s a society that appreciates art – the prevalence of street art, for example – it indicates that people’s focus is firmly entrenched in a set of values that are non-negotiable.”
For Fernando, Melbourne’s culture is largely a moderate and generous one, which has embraced a “multicultural model of Australia that has been threatened or questioned” recently in other parts of the country.
“Melbourne is a home, rather than a city,” he says.
When working with the team at Bank of Melbourne as a recipient of the Bank of Melbourne Neighbourhood Fund grant in 2014, Fernando found the bank personifies Melbourne’s values quite well.
“They do a lot of justice to brand Melbourne,” he believes, and to what he sees as the values of our town, which is to “celebrate eccentricity” and to be “laid-back, accessible and quirky”.
Lentil as Anything’s famous pay-as-you-feel model came about quite naturally. The original St Kilda restaurant had prices on the menu just like any other, but Fernando found that when people came and ate, they often didn’t have enough money to pay. He would say, “Just pay whatever, it doesn’t really matter.”
What he found was that these interactions created special connections every time. “After a couple of weeks I realised it was ridiculous to have prices on the menu, so I stood on a stool and wiped off all the prices from the blackboard.”
He shortly realised that by giving people the opportunity, they actually contributed a lot more generously and substantially.
“Having a fixed price creates a fairly sterile connection – pay for something and leave and that’s it,” he says.
“As society became industrialised and moved from artisan practitioners to larger scale operations, we lost that connection, the pride people have in being able to share their talents and skills, and build connections based on them.”
The pay-as-you-feel model has now garnered worldwide fame and a movement of dedicated followers. Nick Cave volunteered to work a shift once in St Kilda, while Jon Bon Jovi opened a pay-as-you-feel restaurant in the US called Soul Kitchen. Adam Smith, who previously worked in the St Kilda restaurant, has recently opened England’s first pay-as-you-feel supermarket. “There are some amazing offshoots,” he says. “The spillover from what we’ve done is quite wonderful.”
Lentil as Anything has demonstrated it’s a business stronger than the sum of its parts, says Fernando. “It’s a business that builds goodwill, a very strong foundation for any business.”
“I often say to people ‘it’s a business doing pleasure with you’, rather than a ‘pleasure doing business with you’,” he says, and this sums up the way the organisation conducts itself in the community.
He’s proud of the business he started, and is looking forward to seeing its message spread throughout the world. “It can be as simple as neighbours getting together and eating, celebrating differences.”