Like many other restaurant owners, Shaun Christie-David has been hit hard by the impact of COVID-19, which has included the government mandating restaurants close dine-in services and only provide takeaways and deliveries.
"Within three weeks, we lost about 100 per cent of our revenue," says the co-owner of Colombo Social.
Tough social-distancing rules meant people could no longer order kottu roti, hoppers or his mother's dhal while dining in his restaurant in Sydney's inner-west suburb of Enmore.
Instead of scrambling to save his business from financial ruin, though, his first thought was, "how do I help others?'"
Colombo Social, after all, exists to give Sri Lankan asylum seekers employment opportunities, so perhaps it's not surprising that assisting the vulnerable was his first priority.
He spent a weekend coming up with a plan with business partner Peter Jones-Best and Mission Australia's Kyle Wiebe. Within just two days, the Colombo Social kitchen was busy making and distributing chicken and vegetable turmeric curry to Mission Australia's Common Ground project in Camperdown, which supports homeless people.
"Two hundred meals were delivered that Tuesday," says Christie-David. Over a week later, Colombo Social had given away 2,000 meals.
He's been helped by head chef Shannon Dwyer, as well as an all-star team including Niroshan Richards of LP's Quality Meats, Nelly Robinson of Nel and Masterchef's Kumar Pereira who has contributed Sri Lankan recipes.
"The universe has been very good to us," says Christie-David. These chefs had previously frequented Colombo Social and expressed interest in helping the social enterprise. When he told Nelly Robinson he wanted to repurpose Colombo Social into a kitchen that fed those in need, the chef's enthusiasm was immediate. "The first thing he said was: 'I'm in, brother, what do you need?'"
Christie-David has also enlisted his secret weapon: his mother. They've delivered her restaurant-approved dhal and her beef curry to the city's vulnerable. They're now assisting 10 charities, including Mission Australia, Settlement Services International (which helps refugees and asylum seekers) and Redfern Medical Service (which supports hundreds of elderly Indigenous people). A coordinator from the latter organisation initially expressed scepticism about the donated food's quality – only to pleasantly discover the meals were restaurant-calibre and delicious.
"Yeah, I know, it's better than the food I'm eating, trust me!" Christie-David said in response.
Assisting that organisation has been a nice "full-circle moment", because he previously helped set up the Aboriginal Health Television Network and he recognises people at Redfern Medical Services from the years he worked for that Indigenous venture.
"It's better than the food I'm eating, trust me!"
Colombo Social has received some generous donations, with Perfection Fresh sending lettuce that's been turned into Caesar salad, and mushrooms that've ended up in curries and stews.
However, Christie-David is aware many businesses have suffered massive revenue hits and can't afford to give away too much. That's why he launched a crowdfunding campaign, which is an extension of the #PlateItForward scheme he ran at the restaurant, which donated meals to people in need when diners ordered the banquet menu.
"We're looking to do 2,000 meals this week," he says. "But we anticipate the demand will be 2,000 meals a day." Calls for help have only increased since he started sending food to disenfranchised communities.
"Right now, Colombo Social is paying for the food and the labour," he says. But there's a limit to this as the restaurant's revenues have been dramatically depleted. "Ethically and morally, Peter and I have decided to put as much money as we can into this project – as much money as we can afford."
For every $2 the public kicks in, his team will generate a meal, even if Colombo Social is paying an extra $4 to make that meal a reality. "We can drive that dollar that someone has donated as far as possible," Christie-David says.
Currently, the campaign has raised around $30,000: enough for 15,000 meals and a third of Colombo Social's ultimate goal.
The restaurant can now turn out 400 meals a day, but needs a bigger space to meet the goal of producing 2,000 daily meals. So he's been contacting wedding venues and other establishments that might presently be dormant, hoping to find a large commercial kitchen that can handle the scale of food his team is aiming for. It makes more sense than sinking thousands into renovating Colombo Social's kitchen for this task.
"If we're going to put $10,000-$20,000 into a kitchen, I'd rather spend $20,000 doing the meals," he says.
Christie-David hopes other eateries might follow in Colombo Social's footsteps ("maybe a restaurant does something similar, or a restaurant in Brisbane does this"), but in the meantime, he's inspired by how many people have already donated and shown community support.
"We understand it is a difficult time for everybody, including us. In small ways, people can be part of something," he says. "The only way we can come out as a community and be better is if we all band together."