We all know there's no such thing as a free lunch. Whether it's a five-course degustation menu or that 5 AM kebab you scarfed down in the taxi queue, every meal out is bookended by a dollar sign on the menu and the final bill. The only things certain in life are death and service taxes (and, if you make a habit of 5-AM-kebab-scarfing, questionable bowel movements).
But not at Lentil as Anything. The Australian restaurant company has no prices on its menus, no cash register, and certainly no bills. Each day's meal choices are displayed on a large chalkboard out front and recounted by enthusiastic wait staff. When you've chosen your main course (Punjabi dal makhani, black bean ginger noodles, and Greek doughnuts have all had their turn on the daily menu) and washed it down with a cup of chai, you have the option of slipping your cash into an anonymous donation box. $12 will cover the cost of your meal; $15 covers that plus expenses, including gas, staff wages, and electricity. Not that anyone is counting—all that Lentil asks is that its customers "reflect on their feeling and decide how much they want and can contribute."
"Our aim is to spread the philosophy of caring and giving what you can," explains Matt Pettit, the general manager at Lentil as Anything Sydney. "At Lentil, there is no set price."
Encouraging your customers to pay based on their emotional state may sound like a business plan from that yoghurt-weaving roommate you once had, but Lentil as Anything is becoming one of the Australia's most influential not-for-profit organisations.
Founded by Sri Lankan refugee Shanaka Fernando in 2000, the first Lentil as Anything opened in Melbourne with a 20-person seating capacity. Lentil's community-focused ethos and locally sourced vegetarian menu was a hit, and a second Lentil was soon opened in a former nun's convent. There are now four Lentils in Melbourne serving over one million meals between them each year, and in 2007, Fernando's work was recognised with the "Local Hero of the Year" award.
Pettit opened Lentil as Anything's first Sydney restaurant in April after assisting with the financial side of the organisation in Melbourne. Setting up shop in the "artistic" suburb of Newtown (read: hippy hangout before the spike in housing prices), opening night had customers queuing around the block, and the restaurant hasn't been much quieter since. When Lentil's roaring midweek service forces us to move our interview to the deserted pub next door, Pettit rather sweetly admits that he sometimes worries about taking business from neighbouring eateries.
"Although we're different to the Melbourne restaurants, the ideals of fairness, generosity and trust that underpin Lentil are the same," says Pettit. "It's why people keep coming back."
Of course the whole free food thing may also be what's enticing the customers, but Lentil's clientele is more soy latte set than soup kitchen. Tonight, carefully coifed pony tails easily outnumber the dreadlocks.
"It was the lack of prices that attracted me first. We're backpackers so our budget is pretty tight," says Sean, a diner eating at Lentil for the first time. "But everyone here is pretty involved with the local community so we wanted to support something like this."
Nathalie, another diner enjoying tonight's curry, agrees. "It's a really nice idea, not like other restaurants only interested in the money," she says. "You give what you can and we share things."
Each Lentil is staffed almost entirely by volunteers who man the kitchen, wait tables, play music, and donate artwork for the walls. The team at Sydney is a mix of overseas students and locals, as well as refugees learning language and hospitality skills.
"The environment is amazing. Everyone is here with the same purpose: to do something for other people," says Camilla, a Brazilian student who is working her first shift at Lentil tonight. "We work hard but it feels great."
For Ben, a self-employed web developer who volunteers at Lentil with his wife, it was the interaction with people that prompted him to volunteer.
"After the third year of working at home on the computer, I was starting to get a bit crazy," he explains. "I'd been looking for something like this, a community-spirited place where the money doesn't actually matter."
Along with food and culture, community is the third of the restaurant's "fundalentils." Lentil Sydney works with a local youth centre to provide barista training for teenagers and is establishing links with community service organisation, Wesley Mission.
Lentil's "pay as you feel" model is also being used to tackle the growing problem of food insecurity. The restaurant in Melbourne's inner city suburb of Footscray hasn't made a profit for the past five years, but is kept open through subsidies from other Lentils.
"We don't think of closing it because they're the people who desperately need what Lentil is all about," explains Pettit. "It shows that sense of community that has been diminishing in Australia over the last decade."
The job of keeping Lentil's community values alive at its Sydney outpost falls to Hugo Rios. Operating under the title of "culture keeper," his duties include communicating the restaurant's core principles to staff members, as well as making sure there are enough maracas to go round during musical performances.
"Community is in all of us, there are a lot of things that we can save and change," says Rios, who worked at the Melbourne Lentils before moving to Sydney. "People come from all parts of the world to see what we do. It's amazing."
And with Pettit in talks with other "Lentilians" interested opening their own pay-as-you-feel restaurants everywhere from Italy to Kathmandu, soon people may not need to travel for the Lentil as Anything experience.