Whatever it's worth: Shanaka Fernando at Lentil as Anything at the Abbotsford Convent. Photo: Angela Wylie
HE'S been declared bankrupt, had his business liquidated, and been taken to court by the Australian Taxation Office. He's had his passport suspended and his bank accounts frozen. He's even been threatened with jail over unpaid parking fines. In some eyes, all of that would make Shanaka Fernando an inveterate troublemaker, a man who acts as if he is somehow exempt from the laws that most of us live by. But in his own view, and in the view of many others, he's just trying to shake things up a little, for the good of us all.
''I think there is a role for people who create a bit of agitation in a positive way, or create discomfort in society, just to hold up some sort of a mirror to people,'' says the softly spoken founder of vegetarian pay-as-you-feel restaurant chain Lentil as Anything.
Fernando, 43, has done his own bit of reflecting recently, and has released an autobiography, written with Greg Hill, in which he traces his journey from a life of relative privilege in Sri Lanka to his ongoing attempts to create a small sliver of society in which money does not lie at the heart of every transaction.
Reading the book, the word ''hippie'' is never far from mind as Fernando recounts his years of backpacking, free love and selling cheap Indian skirts at a huge mark-up in the markets of Melbourne.
You get a distinct sense of a young man not quite knowing what to do with his life. But for Fernando, these years were the making of him. He learnt as much from the generosity of dirt-poor communities in the Amazon as he did from the slow but shocking realisation that beneath the civility of life at his elite Buddhist private school in Colombo, there lurked a hideous racism that sprung from the shadows during the civil war that rocked his homeland.
They were just some of the many factors that shaped the anti-business business he established in September 2000, when he opened the first Lentil restaurant on Blessington Street, St Kilda. Twelve years on, it is still going. In 2005, he launched the much larger eatery at Abbotsford Convent; in 2009, he added a place in the Barkly Hotel in Footscray to the chain.
Along the way, other ventures have come and gone (a restaurant in Brunswick, a takeaway stand at ArtPlay in Birrarung Marr, a school canteen at Collingwood College). All have operated on the same basic principle: you choose your food, you eat it, and you pay whatever you feel the experience was worth, or however much you want to or can afford. For some people, that is nothing, for others quite a lot.
He says the three restaurants are ''very sustainable'', though he admits the group is carrying a debt of about $250,000 on an annual turnover of about $2 million. The restaurants run on a mix of paid staff (about 40 across the group, seven of them in management) and volunteers, and they feed about 2000 people a day. The convent site is, he says, ''a massive operation; in summer we average 7500 to 8000 people a week''. Even in winter they do up to 6000. It is the restaurant that keeps the whole chain afloat.
Little wonder, then, that plans to evict Lentil in 2010 became a major rallying point. ''Convent management said, 'You're not the only social enterprise around','' Fernando recalls of the day he was told their lease would not be renewed. ''I didn't even know we were a social enterprise at that stage.''
He speaks about the threat of eviction, as he does of most things, with an air of mild amusement, but he soon realised the seriousness of the threat. ''We were very delicately placed as an operation at that stage. The whole group would have folded - we were operating four restaurants at the time, including a school canteen, and this was really subsidising them, especially Footscray.''
He believes management didn't think Lentil was a suitable tenant ''because we get the broadest cross-section of the population coming here, from the riff-raff and the drug addicts to the conservatives and the intellectuals … and it [management] was more keen to fashion a precinct that tapped into a more exclusive demographic''.
Be that as it may, both the management team and Lentil as Anything are still at the convent. While many assume that means Lentil won the battle, Fernando says the truth is more complicated.
''It's like a cold war,'' he says. ''I almost feel like we're the Palestinians. We've got some sort of recognition and I don't feel we're likely to get kicked out. But we still don't have a lease.''
For many operators, trying to run a business without a lease would be unthinkable, but this is just another chuckle-worthy fact to Fernando. As bureaucratic sticking points go in the life of Lentil, it barely even registers.
In 2003, the ATO hit Fernando with a $300,000 bill for unpaid taxes. The figure was based on an assumed income of about $1000 a day for the three years the St Kilda restaurant had been operating, but at the time, Fernando was living in a tent in tea-tree scrub on the Elwood foreshore.
The tax office put an Indian man in charge of the case. ''I told him, 'You look more like Gandhi than I do, why don't you stay in the restaurant and chop vegetables? Then you'll understand it's social credit we operate on, not fiscal credit.'''
Perhaps not surprisingly, the taxman was unimpressed. By 2005, Fernando was bankrupt. One day, he says, ''the liquidators walked in to Lentil and said, 'Right, this belongs to us now'. And then they realised it was going to cost more to take the equipment out because it was so old and rundown.''
He was living with a lawyer at the time, who suggested they form a new entity and offer to buy the assets from them. ''So we did. We paid $500 or something for three restaurants.''
Again, he chuckles at the memory of it.
Fernando seems utterly genuine in his commitment to the idea of feeding all comers and respecting their dignity in the process - he resists the proposal to turn the convent kitchen into a training centre for the underprivileged, he says, ''because there's an element of condescension about that'' - but were his cause not so noble you might be inclined to cavil at his rather cavalier attitude towards his other responsibilities.
His passport has been suspended and his bank account frozen over a child support matter; he's not a deadbeat dad, he says, but an almost-equal-custody parent who objects to the government's formula for calculating support and intends to fight it all the way to the High Court. ''I'm not shy about standing my ground on issues like this,'' he says.
He is on a payment plan over $14,000 in parking fines racked up, he claims, by volunteers driving vehicles registered in his name. ''I tried to use humour; I said, 'My father instructed me that I had a fine tradition to keep up'.''
The judge was not amused.
And in February, he plans an experiment in money-free living that will see him take up residence in a shelter made of plastic milk crates (with a Glad Wrap roof), designed by architect Martin Heide and erected in an as-yet unspecified site on the bank of the Yarra.
Will you get council approval for the exercise?
''No. No,'' he says incredulously. ''What's the point in that?''
Well, if you don't, surely they'll just come and demolish it?
''Yeah, but then that becomes a moment of collective activity.''
Clearly, a dozen years after launching an experiment that few expected to last this long, Fernando is a long way from losing faith in his belief that there is another, and a better, way of structuring our exchanges. He recently ran a course for Wesley College in which middle-school students got to develop their own pay-as-you-feel social enterprises, a unit that culminated in a lunch-time fete at the school that he thinks might be an indication of where he goes next.
Certainly, the restaurant business is not as exciting to him as it used to be. ''It's bloody tiring,'' he says. In fact, he'd like to get out of it entirely, just as soon as he has found someone who can run Lentil the right way. His way.
By last year, he had cut his time in the business to about 10 hours a week so he could focus on other activities, such as youth work in Frankston, but with a new board in place he has felt the need to be hands-on again.
''I set up the board to see if this operation can be sustained and built on by a diverse group of people coming together, rather than just me,'' he says. But in the process, ''risk-taking became a diminishing entity''. And that is not his way.
He's never set out to flout the law, he says; it's simply that ''bureaucracy is structured with a strong dose of cynicism about an individual's capacity to be honest and good''.
For all that, Lentil has defined him and made him something of a public figure - he received a Local Hero award in the 2007 Australia Day honours, was the subject of a 2010 documentary series on SBS and has, of course, just written an autobiography. And yet Fernando insists he has no desire to be in the spotlight.
''I don't like the attention,'' he says. ''I have been hoping for many years that people will take on the philosophy as part of their lives, and yet there haven't been many people who are completely invested. They always have one foot in conventional security. Especially when the ATO came with its bristling threats to us, a lot of people who I thought were very committed fled in fear.''
He has plans to develop a social product stamp, ''like the Fair Trade emblem'', that retailers could buy in exchange for a guaranteed donation ''towards a fund for reconciliation''. He wants to do more education work, and he has been invited to help out with a project for homeless youth. And he has two children of his own - one with his current partner - he wants to spend time with.
He pays himself $800 a week from Lentil, and rents in Abbotsford. Does he have any ambition to own a home one day?
''No, not at all,'' he says. ''I don't like owning things. To me it's a really weird notion.
''I like to think that ownership is the way I conduct myself rather than the things I possess. It's how I act, what my beliefs are, what my values are. And what I can contribute.''
Everybody Deserves a Place at the Table, by Shanaka Fernando with Greg Hill, is out now through Vivid Publishing.