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17 September 2020

Food for thought

When dining has a social purpose.


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One man’s vision is helping to address the gap between the haves and the have-nots by providing restaurant-quality meals to hundreds of people a week via a ground-breaking, pay-as-you-feel restaurant.

As a race, we waste around one-third of the food we produce, and if ‘food waste’ were a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and the USA. These are just two of a number of statistics Nick Loosley, founder of charity-based, pay-as-you-feel restaurant Everybody Eats, reels off as we start our interview. For someone hearing these numbers for the first time, they come as a numbing indictment of where our society has found itself. For Loosely, who has no doubt shared these facts a thousand times before, they hold no less significance – they are the reason he’s so driven by what he does.

Loosely’s mission – to help address the inequality and the waste he sees, through reconnecting people with food – stems from time spent in the UK studying for a master’s degree, where he wrote his dissertation on the critical importance of eating together, and why it’s so important to us as human beings.

“What I observed at university was when we stopped, twice a day, to prepare and eat food, amazing things started to happen. People ate more nutritiously, they began to understand where their food came from, and felt more connected to the people they were eating with. I began to think, what problems could we solve by eating together?”

From here, his research took him to visit and work at a number of organisations and initiatives where people came together around cooking, which included Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, and he volunteered at two community projects involved with preventing food going to waste – The Real Junk Food Project and Food Cycle.

“What I found was those two projects, which were hands-on and focused on the food waste side of things, were creating more change – because of the way they were horizontally structured – than those trying to use food to solve social problems. They were open, with no barriers, and that was really beneficial.”

This was Loosely’s light bulb moment, when he first thought about setting up a business focused on the three core values that were important to him – food waste, food poverty and social isolation. “From the day I handed in my dissertation, I had a concrete vision of what I wanted to do back in NZ.”

On his return to Auckland, he says that he didn’t want to re-invent the wheel; he wanted to collaborate rather than compete. “The first thing I did was volunteer to work with Kiwi Harvest, one of two food rescue charities in Auckland. They quickly offered me a job, because they realised I had some unique skills and experience – and I worked with them for nine months.”

However, it was clear to Loosely that he wasn’t going to fulfil the concept he had in his head while working for someone else – so he left Kiwi Harvest and piloted his idea as a weekly pop-up, pay-as-you-feel restaurant at an established restaurant, Gemmayze Street, in St Kevin’s Arcade, that would not only offer a three-course meal to those who couldn’t afford it, but pay for it all through the generosity of others.

Bringing together two quite disparate sections of society – the hungry and the well-healed – then asking them to sit down and eat together was a bold plan, but he pulled it off. And, three years on, it’s still going strong.

“One of the hardest things about working with the vulnerable community is getting them to trust you and what you are trying to do, because they are used to being let down,” explains Loosely. “When we first started, there was a lot of work to be done, and we began by building trust with some of the organisations and influential people in the street community around K Rd – and it came along pretty quickly, once they realised there were no strings attached. Getting the paying customers to start coming along, however, was a bit more difficult. To get things started, we needed to engage some well-known chefs to make it [the food and the dining experience] appealing; from there [paying] customers came over time.”

At first, Loosely says about 80 percent of his clientele were dining, but weren’t paying. That percentage is now more like 50-50, and he now also has a group of loyal regulars – some who have been to every evening Loosely and his team of volunteers have put on. The whole donation process is anonymous, which eliminates the stigma around not paying… or conversely, makes it easy for those who want to be generous without being obvious.

“Nothing is for sale – and that’s the key. As soon as you put a price on something, you create the opportunity for one person to have something that another person can’t. And that stops this beautiful process of breaking down the social barriers,” he says. “If you’re next to someone who has no money, and you have a coke and he doesn’t, then immediately, you’re the ‘have’ and he’s the ‘have not’. Without that purchase, you are both exactly the same. And that’s really powerful.”

With the roaring success of his regular Monday night pop-up at Gemmayze Street, off K Rd, Loosely recently acquired a venue in Onehunga as a permanent base for Everybody Eats.

“The vibe is quite different between K Rd and Onehunga. The pop-up is very busy – sometimes over 300 covers in two hours, so it’s hectic and crazy, with a fast turnover. People tend to come in as couples and we have shared tables of seven, which we’ve found is a good size to get people to interact.

“At K Rd, it’s usually pretty evident who’s who, but at our new restaurant in Onehunga, there is more of a community feel, more of a ‘normal’ feel when you dine here. Also, unlike K Rd, where it’s a 50-50 situation, where 50 percent pay and 50 percent don’t, here in Onehunga, it’s more like a third, a third, a third, where 30 percent don’t pay, 30 percent pay, but a lot less than the meal’s worth, and the rest pay more like market rate.” Neither restaurant has a licence, as that would add another, unwanted, layer of complexity.

Loosely likes the strong sense of community in Onehunga, along with its diversity in terms of culture, age and socio-economics; and the fact it is slowly gentrifying works well for his target clientele, in terms of attracting paying and non-paying customers.

“We are looking for venues in other areas, too, but we need to come through the winter, plus understand the implications for hospitality of the Covid pandemic.” He sees Covid as an unfortunate positive for his particular business model, as it is likely to increase the demand for his restaurants, because of the expected rise in unemployment and the economic fallout from this.

“One thing that lockdown highlighted for me was something I already knew from my research – that there are a huge number of vulnerable people out there who literally don’t know how to cook any more. They may be able to make two-minute noodles, but they don’t know how to boil an egg or steam broccoli, and that’s really scary, because the foods they do know how to cook are often unhealthy and have low nutrition.”

Food poverty is not just a lack of calories, it’s the lack of the right calories, and New Zealand doesn’t stack up well. The concentration of fast-food outlets in many of our lower socio-economic areas is horrendous, says Loosely. How we collectively put a halt to their growing numbers is unclear. He’s not against a sugar or fat tax, per se, but would prefer to see people encouraged to buy healthy food by introducing subsidies such as having no GST on fresh fruit and veg. A carrot, rather than a stick.

Tackling the growing problems associated with food waste is the other key issue close to Loosely’s heart. “One of the main reasons people waste food is because they’re disconnected from it. Within living memory we have forgotten what real food is, where is comes from, and how to prepare it, cook it and preserve it. What we really need to do is re-connect people with food – and that’s through growing and cooking, in my opinion. But that’s a slow burn, a 10- to 20-year game, unfortunately.

“In the meantime, we have Everybody Eats, which, being honest, is a fairly cynical, short-term response to the fact that I know that people don’t have enough to eat and they don’t know how to cook – so, bugger it, we’ll cook the food for you, and we’ll make it an awesome experience at the same time.”

“People, in general, are quite altruistic. If you treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve, I find they will be gracious and generous back… for the most part.” - Nick Loosley

“People, in general, are quite altruistic. If you treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve, I find they will be gracious and generous back… for the most part.” - Nick Loosley

Nick Loosley is the recipient of the 2020 Kiwibank New Zealand Local Hero of the Year Award, which aims to identify and reward everyday people who are doing extraordinary things in their local communities. The award recognises the enormous contribution, sacrifice and commitment of Kiwis who selflessly work to make their local communities a better place.

Everybody Eats is located at 306 Onehunga Mall (Sun to Thur, 6pm - 8pm) and at Gemmayze Street, St Kevin's Arcade (Mon, 6pm - 8pm). The menu changes daily and is posted on their website from 3pm each day – https://everybodyeats.nz/.

You can also register to volunteer, either as an individual or a team (great for a team-building exercise). If you are unable to dine or volunteer, please think about donating. For every $10 received, Loosely and his team can provide three three-course meals to those who cannot afford to pay when they visit. That’s a pretty good investment.

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