Everybody Eats is an Auckland-based, charitable dining concept which aims to help solve three huge problems: food waste, food poverty and social isolation. Working almost exclusively with commercial surplus food that would otherwise end up in landfill, Everybody Eats enlists the help of volunteers to transform this food into 3-course, restaurant meals and invite the local community to dine on a ‘pay-what-you-feel’ basis. We talked to Nick Loosely, Founder of Everybody Eats, to understand the intent, formula and success behind this growing social initiative.
Why did you start Everybody Eats?
In essence, I wanted to use food as a tool to solve and raise awareness of social and environmental issues - these key issues being food waste, food poverty and social isolation.
Are people resistant to the idea of eating food that would otherwise be sent to landfill?
The perception of ‘yucky food’ is always going to be a problem, but all we can do is illustrate that the produce we use and the meals we prepare are quality. There are no food safety issues we really need to adhere to any more than a normal restaurant, but we are very careful due to the nature of the food we work with. Most of the food we access is fresh fruit and veg which is pretty straightforward and safe compared to meat and dairy. With processed, packaged and value-added products, we tend to be working with those past their Best Before dates.
Have you had to break down any stigma in the community around the ‘pay what you feel’ model, and the ‘haves’ eating next to the ‘have nots’?
The reality is that our concept is novel and not everyone grasps it. There will always be the people in need wondering why there are people that don’t look like they are struggling eating ‘their’ food. And there will always be ‘haves’ not wanting to eat with us because they think they are taking food away from those in need. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Without paying customers we cannot feed vulnerable people, it’s that simple.
Although we don’t see them, there are also those that think we shouldn’t feed people in need with food that would otherwise go to waste, because it is perhaps degrading. I think we have done a good job of showing how good this otherwise wasted food is and what can be done with it. There is nothing degrading about eating at Everybody Eats, it is something for the whole community.
The community who dine at Everybody Eats are from very diverse backgrounds. What does it mean to you that every person is treated with respect, dignity and given the world class service they deserve?
Diversity, inclusivity and bringing people together are at the very heart of what we do at Everybody Eats. As a privileged Pākehā who loves eating in restaurants, what I am trying to do is give everyone that experience - even if it’s just for a few hours of the day, or once a week. People like me tend to take a lot of our experiences for granted. Every day when we buy a coffee, for example, we are treated with respect by people who, in most cases, do respect us. For homeless people and those society has left behind, they don’t often have these experiences.
When we ask our customers why they love Everybody Eats, they usually don’t even mention the food, they talk about how welcome they feel, the friends they’ve made around the table and how positive it is to be treated with dignity and respect by people they don’t otherwise come in contact with. Seeing people week in, week out whose spirits are raised because they feel valued and part of the community is everything.
Volunteers are key to the success and longevity of the Everybody Eats model. Why do you think people and organisations are so keen to get involved and give back?
We’ve been successful attracting and retaining volunteers for a few reasons. People are pretty keen on food; they love an opportunity to work with chefs - who seem to enjoy a degree of celebrity these days - and most of our volunteer roles are very straightforward and manageable.
Our systems were designed by professionals with experience not only in hospitality, but also volunteering. Everyone knows chefs tend to work long, hard hours, so when top chefs started putting their hands up to help on their days off, I started to ask why. In short, a lot of chefs associate more with the blue collar, everyday people they are feeding at Everybody Eats than those they are cooking for in their restaurants. Everybody Eats is a chance for them to use their skills to help others.
What has been your biggest challenge with the development of Everybody Eats in Auckland?
The concept of Everybody Eats was built on years of professional experience in business and restaurants, rigorous academic research, and my own experiences as a volunteer - so there haven’t been too many surprises. That’s not to say it hasn’t been hard work, but I did know what I was getting myself into.
It has been harder to grow than I anticipated, but that is partly because as an organisation we are not focused on growth for growths sake, and want to ensure that what we are providing is making a tangible difference in the community. I’d rather have one permanent restaurant doing amazing things, than 5 that had lost track of what they are there for.
Do you see this ‘pay as you feel’ model working on a larger scale, or being adopted globally to tackle social issues?
I think people are going to need to get used to giving and receiving different amounts of money depending on their situation. As income inequality grows and machines take over our jobs, I have no doubt there will need to be a UBI (Universal Base Income) or something similar. In the same vein, I think privileged people should be comfortable paying more to support those that haven’t been dealt such good cards.
What keeps you motivated and encouraged to bring meaningful change to our Auckland community?
As part of this work I am exposed to a lot of people that are struggling in Auckland and it’s really sad. Not only do they not have enough of the right food to eat, but some aren’t treated fairly, others don’t get on with their community or are extremely isolated. I am motivated by the need for us to find ways for people to understand each other, to build empathy and support one another.
What’s been your biggest ‘warm fuzzy’ moment at Everybody Eats?
About 2 years ago I was closing the door after service and a man came up to me and abruptly handed me a handful of tightly rolled $20 notes. I said ‘what’s this for?’, and he replied with tears in his eyes ‘when I was hungry and couldn’t afford food, you fed me. Now I’ve got some money, I want to repay you’. I tried to keep talking with him, but he was finding it too emotional so turned and walked away. He gave $1,000, which in the context of what we do, is quite a lot. My guess is he would have eaten 10 times with us prior to that, meaning he was paying a very generous $100 per meal. This gesture told me that he understood the concept, the idea of community and the necessity for people to be generous in order to support those who can’t be.