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Pay-as-you-go idea turns into payday for the community

Shanaka Fernando is recognised as a bit of a revolutionary, not just for his work as a public speaker and motivator, but for pioneering the pay-as-you-feel vegetarian restaurant chain Lentil as Anything – which has become a cultural movement in Victoria. 

Growing up in war-torn Sri Lanka, Fernando saw first-hand the impact money has on shaping people’s attitudes and values for the worse. These experiences led him to choose to live a simple, ethical existence, so when he launched Lentil as Anything in 2000, it was a given that he would approach business in the same way.

His restaurant is run as a not for profit community organisation, which asks customers to pay what they feel the food is worth as a donation toward the philosophy under which it is run. And it’s an approach customers have embraced in droves, with demand allowing Fernando to open three restaurants around Melbourne.

Here, he discusses the impact trust has in building authentic relationships with customers and offers some advice for how any business can improve its social responsibility credentials.

How does the ‘pay as you feel’ approach work? Have you had any issues with people abusing this philosophy?

Pay as you feel is a fantastic way of connecting with people. It is a risk, no doubt, but one would be hard pressed to find a business that doesn’t have an element of risk. The most sincere and authentic way to connect with people is through trust – as it conveys a strong message of acceptance. Even from a commercial perspective, a business benefits from these qualities.

By my removing money as an inhibitor, we opened out the enterprise to a broad spectrum of participation. With a large volume of patronage, the culture of “abuse” (if there is any at all) is negated by the decency of the majority. I think it’s fantastic proof that the goodness inherent in us is a stronger force than any other intent.

Why is it so important to you that you run an ethical business?

Business and life are one and the same thing.

We are not here to keep postponing our conscience while we engage in a pitiful masquerade in the hope that substance will one day catch up. We have to ensure that we honour the affinity we share with others, at all times. We have to think on our behalf and take full responsibility for our actions.

Are there any similarities between running a non-profit and a traditional business?

I don’t think there is a difference. I’d like to propose that the only profit is the sense of satisfaction one derives from what one does – it’s a quality that’s immediate.

If I have any savings [profit] I disperse it to the people around me, as the happiness of people around me enriches my life. The most successful business and tradespeople do what they do because of the love they have for their pursuits.

Do you think it’s possible to run a business that’s focused on making a profit, and still be ethical? How?

It depends, once again, on what is profit? There is no holiday from ethics. Someone once said: “You can’t kill time without injuring eternity.”

What did it mean to win the Australia of the Year local hero award? How has this impacted on your organisation?

The award brought a flurry of attention. Of course, I was humbled by the recognition in light of the great deeds of the other nominees. It also said something about Australia and its scope to embrace and celebrate innovation, uniqueness and grass roots culture.

The organisation has benefited from a renewed appreciation and its name has seeped into the national psyche. I was very warmed to learn that, a direct result of the award, education services Australia has developed our values into a teaching unit and distributed it to all primary schools in Australia.

Are there any socially responsible businesses or entrepreneurs you admire? Who are they, and why?

Bruce who runs the Elwood natural health supplies – an organic fruit and vegetable business in Elwood – is my hero. He is passionate about people eating healthy nutritious produce and has demonstrated a strong disregard for money when it competes with what he truly values. He supplied Lentil As Anything for many years and kept postponing our invoices. We owed him over $100,000. Finally, he informed us that he didn’t want our money – the cheek! Here is a saint in our midst.

Bruce has operated his business for over 40 years.

What advice would you offer to traditional businesses that are looking to become more socially responsible? What avenues are open to them?

Please put people before fiscal profit, the money will take care of itself. Trust people: think of the risks of mistrust – we all shape our destiny.

When a business connects with its patrons through trust, it’s the beginning of a relationship that keeps enriching itself. There is no other way.

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Lorna Brett

Lorna Brett

Lorna was Dynamic Business’ Social Web Editor in 2011/12. She’s a social media obsessed journalist, who has a passion for small business. Outside the 9 to 5, you’re likely to find her trawling the web for online bargains, perfecting her amateur photography skills or enjoying one too many cappucinos. You can follow her on <a href="https://twitter.com/#!/dynamicbusiness">Twitter @DynamicBusiness</a>

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