When Andres Rodriguez met his friend Kysbel Castellanos as fourth-graders in Venezuela, he couldn’t have known that one day they’d be running a restaurant together on the other side of the world. Her dream was to open an eatery – so they ended up selling arepas, a cornbread that’s beloved as a comfort food and street snack in the city of Caracas, where they grew up.
“I can’t picture life without arepas. It’s the one thing that’s always on the table – breakfast, lunch and dinner… Every family has their own way of making them, and every grandma has their own tricks,” says Rodriguez. In Australia, where the snack is less well-known, he describes it to people as a corn pocket, “like a pita pocket made out of cornbread”. Or, “like a taco” – only better.
The duo started Arepa Oz as a food stall in Sydney markets, while saving up for an inner-city shopfront. Some nights Rodriguez would sleep among sacks of cornmeal in his bedroom, and perishables were kept in his neighbour’s fridge to save space.
But in 2018, when the pair finally managed to secure enough funds to set up shop in Enmore, the unthinkable happened. The builder they had hired disappeared overnight, taking their entire life savings of $40,000 with him. Left with an unfurnished shop and rent to pay, Rodriguez had to enlist the help of friends and family to finish the building work. “Our promise was that we would shout our friends a meal if they could help. But we didn’t really have money to pay for it,” says Rodriguez.
It was at this point that they turned to social enterprise Lentil As Anything, a vegan restaurant in Newtown which functions on a ‘pay-what-you-can’ basis, meaning patrons could eat for free or donate an amount that helps sustain the business and pay for the restaurant’s costs and upkeep.
“We found ourselves having lunch [at Lentil As Anything] every single day. Sometimes we would go there for lunch and dinner,” says Rodriguez. “It was money we didn’t have, and it gave us that little bit of hope. We could bring our friends there – we couldn’t pay for the help they were giving us, but we could shout them a meal that way.”
At the time, he was struck by a sense of community among strangers and the solace of what felt like a safety net. But being on the receiving end of such generosity didn’t come without guilt. “To be completely fair, we were really embarrassed. It was like: ‘I’m taking and taking, but I’m not giving anything in return, and it’s not what it’s meant to be like.’”
Rodriguez promised himself that if they made it through the rough patch, he would somehow repay the kindness.
That opportunity came last year, when a thriving Arepa Oz meant that Rodriguez and Castellanos were in a position to support Lentil As Anything by donating 400 arepas to the restaurant – feeding patrons who were in need. Volunteers were also trained on how to make their signature black bean and guasacaca (avocado salsa) arepa, so that skills were passed on to the community.
What’s more, it was a gesture they vowed to repeat every year. When COVID-19 struck, and Arepa Oz lost 70 per cent of sales at the start of lockdown, it didn’t stop Rodriguez and Castellanos from fulfilling their promise. “Like everything in life, when you go through a challenging time, that’s when you realise what you’re made out of. Do you crumple or do you push through and fight? And we’ve been fighting really hard,” says Rodriguez.
This year, from August 24 until September 14, the restaurant continues its pay-it-forward scheme by donating 100 arepas to Lentil As Anything every Monday, giving a much-needed boost to the social enterprise’s income, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
“Like everything in life, when you go through a challenging time, that’s when you realise what you’re made out of. Do you crumple or do you push through and fight? And we’ve been fighting really hard.”
And the effect of the initiative is already showing. “On our first [arepas] night, our takeaway orders were almost triple [compared to an average] Monday,” says Lentil As Anything’s restaurant manager Sophia Clifton. “So not only are the donations a heartwarming gesture, but they are actually bringing us more business, and new customers.”
“We believe in the kindness of people. And it’s so beautiful to see people sharing their good fortune with others when they are in the position to do so,” she says.
As for Rodriguez and Castellanos, business has begun to grow again thanks to enterprising plans regarding new frozen products and the launch of a popular weekly South American degustation night at the restaurant.
But Rodriguez notes that none of it would’ve been possible had it not been for a helping hand when they needed it the most, “[The meals at Lentil As Anything] felt like a beacon of hope. And we were like, ‘Maybe the world is not as messed up as we think.’”
A is for Arepa