At Melbourne restaurant Lentil As Anything (LAA) there are no prices. Patrons pay what they can afford, or what they think the food is worth 
– a concept intended to break down barriers in the community.

Published on January 31, 2011   ·   No Comments

Five minutes with: Shanaka Fernando
BY Claire Sweeney |
Founded in 2000 by Sri Lankan-born Shanaka Fernando, the not-for-profit Lentil As Anything (LAA) restaurant has mushroomed to five, all operating on the same socially responsible and altruistic philosophy.

The business now employs 120 staff, half of whom are refugees, as part of a refugee mentoring program set up by Fernando two years ago.

How and why did you start LAA?

In the late 1990s I set up a cottage industry recycling sari fabric as wraparound skirts, which I imported and sold in Australia. After a couple of years I had raised enough money to set up the first LAA restaurant in St Kilda.

I wanted a place that would facilitate interaction and celebrate difference. I wanted somewhere for people who would otherwise not eat out at a restaurant, where they could come in and be proud of who they are. So whether they have 5c or $50, I wanted to prove that it didn’t matter. I don’t like the word charity or the idea of soup kitchens.

LAA patrons represent a cross-section of the community.

What’s on the menu?

It’s an eclectic mix of vegetarian foods from around the world, reflecting the cultures of the staff.

Tell us about the staff.

About 60 per cent of the staff are refugees, including Sudanese, Palestinians, West Papuans and Sri Lankans. Several are ex-detainees of Baxter and Villawood detention centres.

It makes for some very interesting conversations in the restaurant, plus we have refugee storytelling nights once a week. Under the refugee mentoring program set up by LAA in conjunction with the Department of Immigration two years ago, the business sponsors five to 10 people each year. They work in the restaurant and are cultural ambassadors and a source of assistance for other immigrants. Some have gone on to open their own restaurants – with set prices!

Where do LAA’s profits go?

The profits go towards creating various opportunities and legal aid.

For more information visit the Lentil As Anything website.

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