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Food for a cause

In a highly commercialised world exists an eatery that lets the customer decide how much to pay. It also seems to induce a behavioural change.


AT FIRST, the concept was received with disbelief. Whoever heard of people being fed nourishing food and then given the responsibility of deciding how much to pay. Eight months after the Thudiyalur branch of the Annalakshmi restaurant opened, people still come in with scepticism writ large on their faces.

After partaking of a hearty meal served with a smile by volunteers of the Shivanjali Trust, first-timers look a trifle perplexed when the check folder is left with them. How can one possibly fix a price for good food served with lots of love? The regulars look a tad more confident.

They say they don't mind paying a little extra than what they would have in a "regular" hotel. "We know the money is spent wisely to help the underprivileged. This is another form of charity," they feel. Some genuinely believe in the concept and travel across the city to have their food here.

Babu, from the Swami Vivekananda Sangham in R S Puram, is a regular visitor. Talking about his first trip to the place, the yoga instructor says : "I came in with cynicism. But after reading their brochure, I found it hard to control my tears. This is such a noble gesture. One gets mental peace on eating here, even if it is only a morsel."

Sekhar, his colleague, says it was initially difficult to digest this concept. Babu avers that coming to the joint prompts people to do something similar. That is exemplified in the case of Visakha, a Gujarati housewife who started off as a visitor, only to become a volunteer. "I had come here once or twice before I started serving. Though we want to help people, we invariably don't know how to go about it. I now roll out chapattis at the restaurant. Making rotis is very easy for me since I have been doing it since childhood," she says.

Many customers are proud that such a concept has been introduced in Coimbatore, that too at a time when commercialism rules the roost. "Where else will you find people serving others with a smile well knowing that some might not even pay for the food?" a regular visitor asks.

Also, the quality of food remains unchanged. A few people who have eaten in the other branches of Annalakshmi at Race Course and Vadavalli say the food tastes the same everywhere.

Some others see it as a means to do two things at the same time — eat and, at the same time, have the satisfaction of helping out, albeit indirectly. "Many service-minded middle-class people don't know where to go and start helping out. This is a very good place to do that," opines Sivanesan from Podanur, a first-time visitor to the restaurant.

There are many like Visakha who have stayed on as volunteers. Retired people come in at their convenience to serve food while many college students come in the evenings.



SERVING WITH LOVE: Volunteers feeding people thronging Annalakshmi.

And what the Trust offers them is a pick-up facility and a lift back home, says N K Chandrasekaran, who, along with his brother, has been overseeing the chain of restaurants since its inception. Tuition fees are paid for some students while a few others are helped with their books.

He says the underlying principle is to treat everyone equally, as desired by their Guru, Swami Shantanand Saraswathi.

And, people seem to have taken to it. Be it the lower middle class couple who have been dreaming of bringing the children to a good air-conditioned hotel or school and college students who cannot afford to eat in posh eateries, all come in without hesitation. From handing out a few meals a day, the restaurant now serves about 300-350 people during lunch while an equal number come in for dinner. The full-course lunch is served as a buffet while the evening tiffin is self-service. The restaurant works on all days except Mondays and is open from 1130 to 1500 hrs for lunch and from 1830 to 2130 hrs for dinner.

Lunch consists of a sweet, rotis, side-dish, rice, rasam, sambhar, poriyal, curd and appalam while idli, dosai, oothappam, masal dosai, roti, fried rice, curd rice and lime rice woo the tiffin-loving Coimbatoreans during dinner hours. Both menus change every half-an-hour or one hour depending on the crowd.

This novel concept seems to bring out the best or worst in a person. While some misers think they can get away with paying nothing for good food, certain others celebrate the spirit behind the restaurant and contribute generously.

But, even the former category is changing, the volunteers say. "The eatery seems to tap people's conscience. Some desist from paying a couple of times, but finally feel guilty and make a start, say with Rs. five, before slowly graduating to higher amounts," they add. Also, the ambience in the dining area is serene. "No one demands anything rudely and there are no fights or ego clashes. Everyone enjoys his meal in silence," Chandrasekaran adds.

Have they ever questioned anyone who consistently avoids paying? The volunteers reply in the negative. "We accept everything gratefully. There are those who leave behind nothing and others who donate Rs 500-Rs 1000 for a plate," Swaminathan, the manager, observes.

Plans are afoot to start more such restaurants, Chandrasekaran says, adding that they want to feed at least a thousand people a day at the Thudiyalur branch. Efforts are also taken to avoid wastage of good. The leftovers are taken away by those rearing goats and pigs, while unused food is served at orphanages by the volunteers.

Jayalakshmi, the volunteer cook, comes in early in the morning to start the day's meal. She says she is very happy to be associated with the project. "No one complains even if the spices are occasionally not right. They realise the thought behind the restaurant. I am very happy and feel contented that I cook for such wonderful people," she adds.

SUBHA J RAO

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