The Melbourne restaurants helping casual workers with free waffles, tacos and French onion soup

Elisa Mariani from Mayday Cafe in Richmond is giving away free waffles  for stood-down workers.
Elisa Mariani from Mayday Cafe in Richmond is giving away free waffles for stood-down workers.  Photo: Joe Armao

When Elisa Mariani and her team at Richmond's Mayday Cafe heard about Melbourne's lockdown extension they went straight to the coolroom.

"We checked what would be good for another week and worked out what needed to be used," she says. They found ingredients for waffles, made them, decorated them with heart-shaped squiggles of syrup, and gave the treats away for free.

"We would rather cook for people who are finding [lockdown] hard than throw food away," she says. "We know a lot of people have lost their income and they are doing it really tough."

Mayday is one of dozens of hospitality businesses that have sprung into action with free food programs,
Mayday is one of dozens of hospitality businesses that have sprung into action with free food programs, Photo: Eddie Jim

The waffle is a gesture as much as sustenance. "Something small can make a big difference to how someone feels," she says.

Mayday is one of dozens of hospitality businesses that have sprung into action with free food programs, spurred by a desire to avoid food waste and an awareness that so many restaurant workers get by week to week.

Chin Chin in the city and Hawker Hall in Windsor are making butter chicken for stood-down hospitality workers. Etta in Brunswick East repurposed roast pork and confit beans for meal packs. Bar Margaux in Fitzroy has doled out French onion soup and Kazuki in Carlton is doing free Japanese curry "for our hospo friends".

Owner of Theodore's diner Lily Stokes, photographer in September 2020.
Owner of Theodore's diner Lily Stokes, photographer in September 2020.  Photo: Justin McManus

Meanwhile, Good Gnocchi in Carlton North has given away 500 portions of spaghetti and napoli sauce this week. Owner James Eddy is glad that government financial support is on the way "but a week is a long time", he says.

"I'm 24 years old and it's very normal for anyone my age to live week to week. People are running out of money right now."

At Theodore's, in Brunswick, the family diner has extended a week-one cook-up for the second week of lockdown and expects to feed 150 people from the restaurant world and broader community.

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"We will do a braise with lentils and winter veg, maybe pumpkin, mushrooms and leafy greens," says owner Lily Stokes. "We don't have much to give but we have access to reasonably priced ingredients, spare containers, commercial space and we can donate the labour. Why wouldn't we contribute?"

Stokes promoted Theodore's first giveaway on Instagram. "We had 120 replies," she says. "It made my heart ache. We know how to do this but the stress and emotions don't get easier."

Taiwanese student Sheng-Kai Tsai works as a casual waiter at Pope Joan cafe in the city. Losing shifts now is not only financially devastating, it also plunges him into the same emotional territory of 2020.

"I wasn't making any money the whole lockdown last year and getting no support from anywhere," he says. "When we had another lockdown, I was quite depressed. I have no idea how long this is going to be and how I am going to support my study and life here."

His week brightened when Pope Joan chef Bente Grysbaek announced she was doing a free cook-up. Kai came for spaghetti with pine mushrooms and potato bake with white pudding and jalapeno.

"This is really helping," he says. "Sometimes I don't eat, even if I have ingredients, because I feel so anxious. This food makes me feel like somebody cares and they support you in this country."

Food truck Dingo Ate My Taco was geared up for Melbourne's Rising festival but its cancellation meant they had $7000 worth of meat to deal with. Owner Kady Simkins did a push on Instagram to sell it.

"Melbourne really helped us," she says. "We managed to sell all the food and keep our staff's shifts. That made us feel that this week we could pay it forward and donate food. We are letting people choose any two tacos, chips and salsa."

They'll be in Maribyrnong this weekend and expect plenty of demand. "It's sad," says Simkins. "The first girl that came looked like she was going to cry. All her shifts had been cancelled. People had got to the point where they felt they could rely on their incomes again."

Jack Shaw owns Hope Street Radio wine bar and music headquarters in Collingwood. When lockdown was announced, he quickly resurrected the 2020 soup project he ran with chef Nagesh Seethiah. "We make 70 litres of soup and put it on people's doorsteps," he says.

Shaw thinks about half the recipients are restaurant workers. "Hospitality is a hard industry and we do have a sense of all being in it together," he says. "That's beautiful but it's broader than that. Hospo is about looking after everyone."