Earlier this year, Newtown’s pulse became thready after the permanent closure of its lifeblood, Lentil As Anything. The pay-what-you-can restaurant was a microcosm of mutual aid, and highlighted how community-oriented not-for-profits could operate on a larger scale. Following financial struggles and rent-related disputes, the landlord decided to lock the manager out of the building due to a stalemate regarding rent payments.
Run by a dedicated family of paid chefs and volunteers, Lentil offered daily vegan delights for lunch and dinner. Though the suggested price was set at $15, customers were welcome to pay with a gold coin or nothing at all (not to be confused with the alternative restaurant business model that encourages customers to pay what they think their food is worth). Lentil’s price flexibility supported customers regardless of their financial circumstances, actively rolling out the welcome mat for those in need. A customer’s choice whether or not to pay was neither scrutinised, nor questioned—a palpable sense of trust always hung in the atmosphere.
For eight years, the bustle of King Street kept Lentil As Anything alive. While many relied upon Lentil for free meals, the restaurant was largely kept afloat by paying customers. Before the onset of the pandemic, the ground floor and upstairs dining area would burst at the seams with people from all walks of life. This helped Lentil make its rent payments. But as King St became more and more deserted, the number of figures who cast a shadow on its front step dwindled.
The dedicated volunteers and workers refused to leave those who relied on Lentil’s services in the lurch. Lentil delivered free meals during the pandemic, aware that it is at the height of crises that mutual aid is most necessary. However, the COVID-induced economic downturn and lack of paying customers plunged the restaurant into financial crisis.
Financial strife was not new for the charity restaurant. Former volunteer, Bonnie Huang, spoke to the restaurant’s resilience, having successfully weathered setbacks before. ‘Historically, Lentil has been faced with many issues’, they said, ‘and has threatened to close many times in the past. However, Lentil always effectively evolved their model to get by.’
For this reason, the sudden and permanent shutdown was surprising. The restaurant’s Chef Manager, Nisha Merchant, explained that Lentil ‘didn’t stand a chance’ considering many restaurants with paying customers had to draw their blinds during lockdown.
Merchant mourns for the workers, volunteers and customers, all of whom relied upon Lentil’s services in some way. Upon her appointment as chef manager at the then-short staffed restaurant, she sought workers from an asylum-seeker centre. She hired talented chefs who would otherwise have struggled to find work, as many were refugees and immigrants who barely spoke English. One Somali refugee beamed as she told Merchant that she ‘communicated to the customers with her food’. With no similarly welcoming establishments in Sydney, Merchant fears for her workers’ futures, and the fulfilment of their visa requirements.
Merchant noted that volunteers were often drawn to Lentil’s doors every day—not by the incentive of pay, but the familial atmosphere. Floor manager Laura arrived in Sydney for university and left her home country, Singapore, behind to pursue tertiary study. Searching for a pastime, she embarked as a volunteer in late 2020, and unearthed a ‘home and family away from home’. She notes that she was given the opportunity to cook traditional Southeast Asian dishes, a freedom usually unattainable in hospitality employment.
Wendy* shared the significance of Lentil’s unique charity model to helping her survive living alone during Year 12. ‘The news that Lentil was closing was so upsetting because they had done so much for young people living alone and just people doing it rough,’ she says. Although she was enticed by free meals, she emphasises that this was not Lentil’s only drawcard for customers in need. She recalls many of her friends returning frequently due to the friendliness of the volunteers, and the sense of community fostered by features such as the photo wall, crowded with glossy smiles.
Huang reminisced on the establishment as a linchpin of the vegan community, enabling conversations surrounding sustainability and environmentalism to roll smoothly. A high school student at the time, Huang noted that these experiences were ‘essential to [their] development of identity and sense of self’, as ‘it brought [them] out of their school bubble, and gave them the opportunity to meet people from diverse backgrounds’. As a volunteer, they also felt affirmed by Lentil’s open arms, and encouraged to lean on their artistic aptitude to create decorations.
This protracted and unpredictable pandemic has exposed the need for mutual aid in the community more than ever. Surging poverty rates and unemployment cannot be remedied by the Covid supplement alone; it is community-driven support that is the closest thing to a panacea we can find. In a statement, NSW Member for Newtown Jenny Leong said, ‘We know that during the pandemic, so many people are doing it really tough, and we need places like Lentil where everyone is welcome and where you can always get a meal.’ Lentil’s rallying cry, ‘a seat at the table for everyone,’ rang more deeply during the pandemic that disproportionately favoured wealthier individuals and regions.
Even looking beyond the pandemic, mutual aid is crucial to maintaining the wellbeing of individuals and community structures. In the face of capitalism, which seeks to deepen divisions along class lines to maximise profit, mutual aid is an imperative form of praxis. Radical theorist August Devore Welles argues that ‘ordinary people’ caring for marginalised members of society, even in the absence of a salient emergency, is fundamental to revolution. Given our society’s presently inescapable reliance on a hostile capitalistic system, Welles contends that we are always in a state of emergency, irrespective of the current impact of Covid-19. Lentil opened the door to ‘ordinary people’, granting them the opportunity to serve through volunteering, regardless of their experience.
As the days of odes to Lentil As Anything draw in, many hope this mutual aid model’s heartbeat does not flatline. Lentil should not be a unique establishment. Until we embed mutual aid into activist praxis and daily life, the rigours of capitalism will beat on without cease.
*Name has been changed