The Australian pay-as-you-feel restaurant chain Lentil as Anything is a brilliant lighthouse shining hope to the rapidly-growing global village of people who value people over profits. But its continued presence in the iconic Abbotsford Convent precinct of inner-city Melbourne is under threat, with the leased premises now open to tendering by competitive restaurants who do not provide the same services and role within the community.

Lentil as Anything, pay-as-you-feel eatery, Abbotsford, Victoria, November 2015
The popular eatery sits in a corner of the main convent building that was completed in 1903. It faces the large square that conveniently links the carpark to the open gardens.

Lentil as Anything, pay-as-you-feel eatery, Abbotsford, Victoria, November 2015
The principles of the pay-as-you-feel system are clearly displayed at the entrance.

Turn up, wait in line, serve yourself, and enjoy the vegetarian and vegan food — which although it’s not quite delicious, is certainly hearty. Whether you position yourself at a table inside or outside, you’ll find yourself rubbing elbows with a variety of people — from all classes and means. Food is the great equaliser, founder Shanaka Fernando says, and he’s determined to maintain a space where everyone can come and enjoy a meal — regardless of their finances.

Lentil as Anything, pay-as-you-feel eatery, Abbotsford, Victoria, November 2015
Long tables allow large groups to eat together and foster new friendships among strangers.

Lentil as Anything, pay-as-you-feel eatery, Abbotsford, Victoria, November 2015
We stand in line for about fifteen minutes, waiting patiently to just get in the door.

Lentil as Anything, pay-as-you-feel eatery, Abbotsford, Victoria, November 2015
Community noticeboards keep patrons aware of the various activities at the convent precinct and promote the activites of like-minded organisations around Melbourne.

Lentil as Anything, pay-as-you-feel eatery, Abbotsford, Victoria, November 2015
Strings of origami swans hang from the ceiling, and local artists display their works on the walls.

Lentil as Anything, pay-as-you-feel eatery, Abbotsford, Victoria, November 2015
The items on each day's menu are clearly displayed.

After you’ve finished your meal, you place your donation in one of several clearly-marked boxes. Free-will gifting can be full of angst, so a poster suggest some amounts:

  • $5 contributes to the cost but doesn’t cover it — why not volunteer your time?
  • $12 covers your meal and some running expenses, but have you got other skills to contribute?
  • $15 covers your meal and all associated overheads in a sustainable way.
  • $20, $30, 50 covers your meal and also contributes to someone else’s. Extra amounts go to upgrades, expansion and the non-profit organisation’s ongoing work with asylum seekers and other marginalised groups.

Does an honesty system actually work on a practical level? It must.

Lentil as Anything has expanded to six restaurants in Melbourne and Australia, and although the running costs are buoyed by large donations from wealthy individuals, people like you and me who contribute with cash, time and skills are just as valuable. Fernando’s model includes training and employing the most marginalised individuals — the long-term unemployed, asylum seekers and the mentally impaired.

The success of Lentils as Anything really has little to do with its profitablity and more to do with the role it plays in bringing people together. “Lentil is an encouragement for people to share their cultural traits, their sense of individuality – and that gives people a sense of ownership taking in the space because they are valued as they are. I think that’s an extraordinary experience in the context of a modern commercial society, and that to me is the most precious outcome of this experiment, where money is not an inhibitor. This is a great example of using money to bring people together rather than divide people,” Fernando says.

Lentil as Anything, pay-as-you-feel eatery, Abbotsford, Victoria, November 2015
A bright branch hangs above head-height in the centre of the eating hall.

Lentil as Anything, pay-as-you-feel eatery, Abbotsford, Victoria, November 2015
The kitchen is staffed by both paid employees and trained volunteers.

Lentil as Anything, pay-as-you-feel eatery, Abbotsford, Victoria, November 2015
Once you've selected your food from the cafeteria-style hotboxes, you can choose to sit inside or outside.

Fernando has spoken about the 2009 SBS documentary Naked Lentil that presented a negatively biased view of his enterprise, saying it “was a clear example of the perils of trust – because we did trust them and they decided to disregard anything in the interest of the fiscal outcomes, an audience and sponsors, and so exaggerated things to our detriment.” Since that documentary was filmed, administrative systems have changed, and so many of the negatives shown are a thing of the past.

Lentil as Anything, pay-as-you-feel eatery, Abbotsford, Victoria, November 2015
An outside servery offers hot beverages to patrons.

For me, Lentil as Anything at Abbotsford Convent is important as a gathering place. It’s the headquarters for the entire non-profit restaurant chain, and has served an estimated one million meals in the last year.

Every time we come through Melbourne, I know I can find my tribe there. Sometimes there are formal meet-ups, other times we arrive and see who’s around. Even if I don’t know the people who are eating at the long tables, it doesn’t take long to make acquaintances and new friends!

Friends at Lentil as Anything, Melbourne, March 2013
We came from Yvonne's house in Tasmania straight to Lentils in Abbotsford and met up Ellen, Dominic and Rachel who had recently spent time with Yvonne too!

What can you do to continue Lentil’s presence at Abbotsford Convent? Sign the online petition. If you’re in Sydney or Melbourne, also visit one of the Lentil as Anything restaurants and sign a paper petition.

Sign a petition for Lentil as Anything, pay-as-you-feel eatery, Abbotsford, Victoria, November 2015
Signing the petition demonstrates your support for this community pillar.

Share the story, spread the word — every vote of support matters. Lentils offers us a glimpse of how future enterprise doesn’t have to be money-focused while being culturally-inclusive, and that’s definitely worth saving!