Among the Greek social clubs dotted along High Street in Thornbury, a new breed of civic centre has emerged in the unlikely form of a lasagne restaurant.
Most Sundays during lockdown at 5.30pm, 1800 Lasagne opens its doors to hand out brown paper bags filled not just with food from the restaurant but also sweet treats from a psychologist who bakes in her spare time, wine from bottle shop Blackhearts & Sparrows or olive oil from Mount Zero. All of the food is donated. All of it is provided to whoever is lining up.
“I don’t mind if you rock up in a Giorgio Armani suit and a Rolex,” says owner Joey Kellock. “There’s no questions asked.”
His business is one of many restaurants offering high-quality meals for free to their community, in spite of their own economic challenges.
In Brunswick, Vietnamese restaurant Bao Ngoc set up a community fridge on the street this week so people can anonymously collect meals. From Kew, Mister Bianco chef and owner Joseph Vargetto has been delivering pasta packs donated by his suppliers to fellow restaurateurs who pass them to their staff.
Restaurateur Jessi Singh hands out food for an hour every evening from his venues Daughter In Law and Horn Please, while Albert Park Deli offers $25 food vouchers to those in need.
Most giveaways rely on people’s honesty and are promoted through social media, with reminders to social distance and mask up.
“It isn’t cheap. But each week after the giveaway, it’s a good feeling,” says Eleftheria Amanatidis, who offers food from Eleni’s Kitchen in Yarraville every Thursday. The restaurant she owns with her sister Anatoli has always been charitable, delivering food to healthcare workers at Sunshine and Footscray hospitals during the pandemic last year.
This COVID-19 lockdown, Amanatidis is giving souvlaki, pastitsio and finish-at-home roast chicken kits to whoever shows up at the restaurant on a Thursday at noon. One lunchtime, she handed out 350 lamb souvlaki. This week, she asked families to get in touch if they needed a cake to celebrate their child’s birthday.
“We’re doing it because we want to. We hope it’s brightening people’s day. And it lifts our spirits as well. It’s hard for everyone.”
Other businesses have jumped on board with support, including Poultry N More who donated 100 kilograms of chicken to make souvlaki and the Western Bulldogs, who dropped off showbags to give to those lining up.
In the queue, Eleftheria sees a handful of the same faces each week but whether people are struggling financially or not is of little importance to her. She’s just as happy to give something back to the regulars who have supported her business.
Eleni’s Kitchen in Yarraville is among a number of restaurants doing free food giveaways for the community. Photo: Courtesy Eleni’s Kitchen
Kellock is also keen to show his gratitude to the dining public. “They’re responsible for this food scene [in Melbourne] as much as the restaurants. That’s what keeps the restaurants lively and fresh.”
From the start, he’s promoted the giveaways as something anyone can access. “COVID got ya down? Feeling the financial pinch? Just having a shit day? None of the above?” reads one post on the restaurant’s Instagram page.
“It was focused on people feeling the strain,” he says. “That can come in all sorts of different guises.”
The former music festival organiser has become a funnel for the generosity of the wider community, with more small businesses donating stock each week, whether it’s top Carlton butcher Donati’s Fine Meats or Cannoli Bar in Avondale Heights, which showed up unannounced one week with trays of hand-made sweets.
For each giveaway, Kellock and his team ensure people check in and wear masks, then hand out bags of food and ask people to quickly move on, getting parcels into the hands of between 120 and 180 people in just over an hour.
Kellock is quickly earning a reputation for lifting spirits. In June, he created billboards and posters that urged Melbourne to “hang in there”. Recently, he sent similar posters to Sydney. But he’s not interested in accolades.
“I don’t want the thanks. When it comes to putting food in bellies, it’s like wartime. It’s like: stand up, be part of the solution.”