Refettorio looks and feels the same as many hip cafes in Surry Hills, but the place is not serving smashed avocado for brunch and its regular customers rarely have disposable incomes.
- Refettorio customers are often from vulnerable backgrounds and are not comfortable at soup kitchens
- The restaurant manager says the main goal is to provide dignity and respect for people who struggle to make ends meet
- The restaurant offers a dinner service for paying customers to help fund free meals for those in need
Since opening in February, the community restaurant has welcomed people in need through its doors for free three-course lunches.
Run by food rescue organisation OzHarvest, about 300 people a week are served at the restaurant.
Social worker Katrina Humble says Refettorio is about trying to give people respect and dignity.
“When you’re a bit down on your luck or not feeling great, you don’t feel like going out to a restaurant,” she said.
“Coming here … gives them a sense of dignity, that they’re valued.”
Ms Humble says a lot of the people who come to Refettorio are homeless and sometimes do not feel safe approaching a soup kitchen.
“They feel safe in here. It’s their safe place,” she said.
“So because of that and [the] food, they sit, they connect, and they start talking.”
Fostering social bonds
Customers are encouraged to stick around for a three-course meal and take time to connect with other customers and volunteers.
Restaurant manager Nicole Khoury says people are often shy when they first come to the restaurant, but then go on to arrange regular lunch dates in the space.
“Now they have somewhere to go for a meal but also for social connection,” she said.
A ‘happy place to be’
Tom regularly meets with a group every Wednesday for lunch and says the staff “really go all out” to make something special.
“It is an opportunity for people who need a little bit of financial assistance to have a really beneficial meal,” Tom said.
“I’ve shared some time with people that are becoming friends … it’s just a happy place to be.”
Stephen also regularly goes to Refettorio on Wednesdays to meet with friends and appreciates the social benefits of meeting in such a public place.
“We will catch up, and we’ll be social,” he said.
“It’s really good for your mental health, and our wellbeing.”
Grounded in generosity
While lunch service is for people in need, paying customers can also dine at Refettorio at fortnightly dinners to help fund the project.
Diners are served gourmet meals prepared using ingredients rescued by OzHarvest that otherwise would go to landfill.
Giving is an integral part of Refettorio. The restaurant’s furniture, cutlery and crockery have also been donated to the project.
“It’s really nice to be able to tell our customers that everything you see here has been donated,” Ms Khoury said.
“But at the same time, it’s really great to connect with the supporters, and share that something they’ve donated really has had a huge impact on somebody’s life.”