How This Pay-As-You-Feel Restaurant Has Survived

One restaurant chain is proving that having no price list -- and allowing customers to work instead of paying for their meal -- is a sustainable business model.

The smell hits you as you walk down the bustling high street in Sydney's inner west, before the line outside the door stops you in your tracks.

But this is no ordinary suburban vegan restaurant.

Just inside sits a wooden donation box covered in yellow post-it-notes. "Best food" is scrawled on one, "amazing experience" on another, alongside "thanks for everything".

A piece of paper asks for "cash contributions here".

It's one of four volunteer-run restaurants set up by the not-for-profit organisation Lentil As Anything that invites customers to pay what they feel for a meal and a chat in a safe space. And for those who can't afford to pay, they can work for their meal.

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"One of my favourite things is when you see someone who hasn't been here before and doesn't know really how it works," floor manager Samantha Elizabeth told 10 daily.

Welcome to Lentil as Anything, in Newtown, in Sydney's inner-west. Image: 10 Daily

"They might look really hungry, but don't have the money to pay for a plate of food. We say, 'It's okay, come in and we'll feed you."

The social enterprise started in Melbourne 18 years ago when founder Shanaka Fernando began experimenting with 'pay-it-forward' concepts to cater for the those who had fallen on hard times.

Today, there are no prices on the menu. Signs on each long table inform customers what their donation is worth, while those who are unable to donate much are encouraged to volunteer in other ways.

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Samantha Elizabeth describes the restaurant as a "sanctuary" and volunteers part-time. Image: 10 Daily

Upstairs, an open space holds donation-based community events -- from Zumba dance classes to open-mic nights.

Community oordinator Ray Kazlauskas, affectionately known as Ray-Ray, calls it an "open concept".

"We trust that the community will feel the warmth of the place and want to contribute, and we let them do that as they can, and as they feel,"  he said. 

Customers are invited to pay what they want for a warm, vegan meal. Image: 10 Daily
Can pay-as-you-go actually work?

The donation-based model is not a new one; in recent years, restaurants and other businesses, including museums, have started allowing customers to pay as they feel.

Research on the pricing mechanism is mixed. While it does increase risk for a business, some studies suggest it can at times lead to an increase in revenue, while others paint it as an effective strategy only in low-competition marketplaces.

Andrew Grant, from the University of Sydney Business School, told 10 daily the model can be effective in the "right place at the right time".

"For a regular business, it's going to be a challenging model to make work. But for a social enterprise like Lentils, it's the selling point that works its way into the business' overall ethos," he said.

Community Coordinator 'Ray Ray' arrived in Australia three years ago and has never left. Image: 10 Daily

He said the model targets a different consumer with an active social conscience -- but must guide them towards a reasonable price.

"If the customer is already down that path, I don't think they would be the same customer that would not pay for a meal," he said.

It has been a personal challenge for Kazlauskas, who is from the U.S. and found the organisation when he arrived in Australia three years ago.

"Coming from a place in society where you're always trying to scramble and get what you need, and moving to a place where we give and have faith that it'll come back to us? That has been a journey," he said. 

The menu changes daily, using seasonal produce. Image: 10 Daily

And it hasn't been smooth, rather a "fine balancing act".

The organisation relies entirely on donations and the occasional grant but does not receive consistent funding.  At times, they've felt the financial sting.

In 2017, the Footscray restaurant in Melbourne was forced to close as customers refused to pay.

"There have been Lentils in the past that have opened and had to shut because they didn't catch on with the community, and that's okay," he said.

'We Wouldn't Be Alive Without Them'

The restaurant has an ever-growing volunteer program. Anyone can walk through its doors -- from backpackers and young people seeking hospitality skills, to the homeless who work to 'pay' for their next meal.

Volunteers form the Lentils backbone. Image: 10 Daily

"They're always happy to be there and their joy is contagious -- you can't leave there without a smile on your face,"  customer Dom McAllister, who is a local university student told 10 daily.

Samantha calls the volunteers the backbone of Lentils.

"If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be alive," she said.

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Featured image: 10 Daily