It’s just before 9am on a wintry July morning and a group of men – 10 or so – are huddled up together as they wait for Wayside Chapel to open its doors for the day. There’s talk of pooches, vet bills and refuge politics, but it wouldn’t escape the attention of any passer-by just how much of their conversation is devoted to food. “You have to try a raspberry danish,” says one to another. “I had one yesterday and they’re amazing!” “I was thinking frittata… I could go some frittata with my coffee.”
On the other side of the glass, volunteers are working quickly to get the breakfast service underway. There’s cereal, toast and coffee, of course, but there are also the aforementioned danishes, frittata, bacon and egg rolls, as well as some serious chatter between staff as to whether they’ve got the ingredients to make fresh pancakes this morning.
You could say this is the most unusual soup kitchen you’ve ever seen, except that it isn’t. A menu positioned just in front of a counter filled to the brim with hearty stews, curries, salads and quiches, reveals what could possibly be the cheapest prices in town – starting from 20 cents for a coffee to $4 for a main course with endless sides.
“We’re not about feeding hungry bellies, but about staving off social isolation and building a community."
“We’re not about feeding hungry bellies, but about staving off social isolation and building a community,” says Su Harris, Wayside’s Culinary Manager, over the din of the breakfast crowd and laughter. “And sure, we’ve had some challenges along the way, but I think we’re achieving that quite well.”
The argument for paid food
Wayside Chapel, located in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Potts Point on Hughes Street, has been ingrained in the fabric of local life since it was first established in 1964. Offering a range of services, outreach programs and shops where customers are seen as people to be met and cherished rather than a problem to be solved, the Chapel’s cafes (there’s also a cook-it-yourself cafe upstairs) are at the heartbeat of the entire organisation.
Although the main cafe operated as a soup kitchen for decades, dishing out a simple meal such as spaghetti Bolognese free of charge, things changed three years ago when the cafe was turned into exactly that: an eatery like any other, with waiters (in this case, Wayside volunteers), a menu and – at great controversy at the time – payment for goods and services.
"It not only offers the dignity of choice, but ... the dignity of being able to pay for the experience like any diner.”
“It wasn’t easy going from free food to paid food and there was definitely some outrage at the time,” admits Harris, who has been with Wayside Chapel for four years. “But although there were some who were impacted, it was the right choice because when visitors come in now, they feel as though they’re in any other café in inner-city Sydney,” she says.
“There’s a menu with five or six high-quality options to choose from, waiters to serve them and it not only offers the dignity of choice, but with the most expensive dish on our menu standing at four dollars, the dignity of being able to pay for the experience like any diner.”
She does add, however, that no one will go hungry; that if someone truly is in need and can’t afford $2 for a toastie, they will still get fed. “But you can do it [only] a couple of times – if it’s every time, then we’ll need to start exploring options on how we could assist further.”
Strength in kindness
As can be expected, Wayside Chapel is a well-oiled machine that runs on the kindness of strangers. A great deal of the produce is donated by businesses – bread from a bakery, fruit and vegetables from a supermarket, and even meat from farmers who want to do their bit. “We have one farmer who donates a steer every month, which is cut up and put in the freezer for us to use,” says Harris.
“And we had another who used to donate lamb for our Sunday roasts, but like many others he’s been badly hit by drought so can no longer do it, so we buy it.” A couple of years ago, Harris was purchasing up to 80 per cent of the produce used in the cafe’s foods, but says, at the moment, it’s about 90 per cent donation and 10 per cent purchasing power.
The centre serves up around 1,460 meals per week, with Harris overseeing a team of seven chefs and a roster of 150 volunteers (three working at any one time) from all walks of life. “Some of our volunteers started out as visitors themselves and have come back years later to pay it forward, and then we have corporate types who come in after work in their suits and clean out grease traps, and then we have everyone in between,” says Harris. “It really is one big community.”
As the breakfast crowd of 20 dissipates, with many either heading outside or into one of the many programs run by Wayside Chapel (anything from sewing to gardening classes up on the roof garden), a lunchtime crowd begins milling about, taking in the dishes on offer as the support crew work tirelessly in the commercial kitchen upstairs. At the helm today is Trish Crosthwaite, a mother of four boys and Wayside volunteer since 2008, who took up a position as chef four years ago. Having come in at 8.30am to begin her shift, the day has begun like any other – by checking out what last night’s chef has prepared and stored for today before clocking off at 9.30pm.
“When you elevate the food experience from one of need to a pleasure to be enjoyed, you invite dialogue, adventure and a quest to learn more."
Much to Crosthwaite’s delight, there’s roast chicken, roast beef and a roast pumpkin salad tossed through with coriander for her to work with – staples she can then add sides to before preparing a handover for the next chef clocking on for the 2pm to 9.30pm shift. “Often, it’s about coming in, seeing what we’ve got and coming up with a meal plan quickly,” she says as she gets to work chopping and stirring with lightening speed. “When you’ve got four boys, believe me when I tell you that’s your training done.”
The heart of the community
As the dining room quickly fills up with people from all walks, Harris talks me through who makes up the bulk of the Wayside Cafe’s visitors. Mental illness is perhaps one of the more common links and, while some are on lower incomes or homeless, there are others who work and have homes to go to. “But we get all ages, and we tend to see more men than women but, of course, we’ll welcome anyone.” There’s no question that the food is mouth-watering, but you can’t deny Harris is right when she says their visitors aren’t coming so much for the food, but for the feel-good vibe and a sense of place within their community.
Evening brings with it a new team of volunteers, more dishes and a fresh wave of activities from karaoke and bingo, electrifying the room with a strong sense of fun and mischief. If their paid cafe has changed anything, it’s how much conversation is enjoyed within the cafe’s walls these days. “When you elevate the food experience from one of need to a pleasure to be enjoyed, you invite dialogue, adventure and a quest to learn more about what else you might enjoy,” says Harris. “It’s something we take for granted, but as you can see here it’s a gift and it’s one that has the capacity to keep on giving.”
If you wish to donate or get involved with Wayside Chapel as a volunteer, you can find further information at Wayside Chapel.
SBS's new season of Filthy Rich & Homeless is an honest and compassionate exploration of what it’s like to be homeless in Australia today as it shines a light on a part of our society often overlooked and ignored. Watch the trailer below:
Filthy Rich and Homeless airs over three nights – Tuesday 14, Wednesday 15 and Thursday 16 August on SBS from 8.30pm. A special live studio program will air directly after episode three.
Join the conversation #FilthyRichHomeless