Their food is enticing, the ambiance is warm and embracing, and they have a story to tell. Susan Gough Henly explores Melbourne’s social-enterprise cafes, restaurants and bars trying to help the planet one meal at a time.
Head barista Dan warmly greets me at the airy STREAT Cafe in Flemington, before taking my order of a latte and a chicken Waldorf salad on sourdough bread.
On its whimsical blackboard wall I learn about the cafe’s history, Giuseppe La Spina created Melbourne’s third espresso bar here in the late ’50s, and its new story: it has served 1.24 million customers and provided 38,000 hours of support and training for more than 350 homeless youth.
From humble beginnings in 2010 with coffee carts in Federation Square, STREAT now has seven social-enterprise businesses including five cafes, a coffee-roastery and a catering business.
And from this June, the refurbished Cromwell Manor in a former brothel in Collingwood will house its roaster, a new bakery and cafe, its training academy and head office.
“We’ll be able to train and support 250 street kids a year to become chefs, baristas, and bakers and we will be 100 per cent self-funded,” says co-founder and CEO Rebecca Scott.
STREAT sources produce from Spade and Barrow, another Melbourne social enterprise that buys whole crops from local farmers, before its team of chefs create seasonal menus with every meal and condiment created fresh every day.
Melbourne’s social enterprise eco-system is thriving. Most of the businesses are cottage industries, while STREAT has scaled up in an attempt to address what feels like an intractable problem of youth homelessness.
I meet friends at the buzzy Feast of Merit restaurant and bar whose striking two-storey mural is fast becoming an icon on Richmond’s Swan Street. With its stripped-down brick walls, donated pendant lights, salvaged timbers and copper bar, Feast of Merit has a raw honesty that reflects its purpose well.
Run by YGAP social-enterprise, whose CEO is Elliott Costello (son of World Vision’s Tim Costello), Feast of Merit offers farm-to-fork fare with a Middle-Eastern-meets-Melbourne twist.
Head chef is Ravi Praveen whose resumé includes stints at Circa, Cumulus and Fonda Mexican. Quality and flavour is paramount and the profits support YGAP’s mission to end poverty. Funds go to local impact entrepreneurs who are changing lives in some of the world’s toughest communities in Africa, Asia and Australia.
Shebeen has taken a different approach by sourcing exotic beers, wines and spirits from the developing world. There are tasty brews from Ethiopia and Namibia, world-class wines from South Africa and Chile, and a terrific selection of tequila and mescal.
All the profits are donated to education, small-scale farming and healthcare projects in the countries where the products are made.
On a sizzling summer’s evening I enjoy a crispy pork belly Vietnamese banh mi, provided by Paperboy Kitchen (which collaborates with Shebeen), washed down with a Kenyan Tusker lager in a kaleidoscopic cross-cultural encounter. I can even choose which project will benefit from my purchase.
“Melbourne has always been the home of philanthropy in Australia and it’s also renowned for its hospitality scene,” says Simon Griffiths, founder of Shebeen, which is tucked down a CBD laneway. “It was only a matter of time before Melburnians put the two together.”
Whatever model you choose, you can be assured of a tasty experience and a warm sense of community. And no matter what you imbibe, you’ll feel good the next day.
More Melburnian social enterprise eateries
Lentil as Anything are non-profit, pay-as-you-feel vegetarian restaurants that hire the long-term unemployed and the marginalised with five locations in Melbourne and one in Sydney.
The Cutting Table Cafe at the Social Studio serves African-inspired dishes and its first-Friday-of-the-month Africa Night offers a banquet and Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The Social Studio is a fashion label and shop offering training for refugees.
Kinfolk Cafe is a volunteer-staffed cafe that gives away 100 per cent of its profits to charities that customers select via a bean-voting system.
Charcoal Lane is Mission Australia’s social-enterprise restaurant, providing training for disadvantaged youth.