Words by: Molly Schmidt
Image credit: Annalakshmi.com
Next time you take a nice stroll down by the Swan River, pop in to Annalakshmi. Annalakshmi is a vegetarian Indian restaurant on Barrack Street Jetty. It is run by volunteers, and the “pay what you can afford or feel” idea makes it unique to other restaurants in Perth. Picture yourself sitting outside admiring the city lights reflected in the water, a steaming plate of curry in front of you, and the opportunity to pay what you believe the meal is worth when you leave. Between mouthfuls of spicy vegetarian dishes, you might take the opportunity to look around the restaurant and see who else has joined you. Looking up from your plate of wonders, you would realize this restaurant draws people from all different scopes of life. Hindu families, hippy couples, teenagers, young mothers, businessmen and women and the homeless, all are drawn together by this friendly restaurant that offers a judgment free environment to enjoy some seriously good food, for whatever price you can pay. You can keep eating your curry now. I’ll tell you a story.
“Serve, love, give selflessly.” This is the philosophy of Annalakshmi on the Swan, which has now been around for 25 years. At Annalakshmi it is believed that food is the sustenance of life, and should be enjoyed by everyone. The “eat as you like and pay as your heart feels” ethos means that this is possible. Restaurant manager Arun Natarajan says he always buys the best ingredients to ensure the best meal will be served. Some people seem to think that “pay by donation” means you’ll be eating average food, but judging by the plate heaped with mini mountains of wholesome Indian food in front of you, we both know this isn’t the case.
The really beautiful thing is, their generosity doesn’t stop at food. Arun explained; “There’s a lot of homeless people, lots of people with disabilities, a lot of…mentally, physically challenged people. They all come to visit us. And we don’t say no to them. We feed all of them. We even, to some extent do counseling.”
Despite its popularity, Annalakshmi is really beginning to struggle due to a loss of customers. This is caused by construction near Barrack Street Jetty as part of the Elizabeth Quay developments, which make it tricky for customers to park close to the restaurant. Many people are also put off by the maze of traffic cones and fencing at the base of the building. Arun says they used to see about 600 guests daily, with 30 – 40 people relying on the restaurant for both lunch and dinner every day. Since the construction began in 2012, customer numbers have steeply declined, with now only around 250 guests per day.
This means the team at Annalakshmi is really struggling to pay the rent, let alone buy the groceries. Whilst Arun says the only real course of action can be to stick around and wait for the construction to finish, he says the cost of rent is “exorbitant” and that it would be fantastic if the government could provide some sort of rent assistance for the duration of the construction that will help the place keep running. He says with not enough people visiting the restaurant, the break even cannot happen. Whilst the Elizabeth Quay development “is the centrepiece of a bold plan by the State Government to revitalise our city”, it is evident that current businesses are really feeling the strain.
Looking around at the generous servings, you wouldn’t know it, but it seems the time has come for Perth to give a little back to this fantastic restaurant. They received huge support from a Facebook campaign over the last two weeks that encouraged people to bring their friends and visit the restaurant between the quieter periods of Monday to Thursday. The campaign brought thousands of people in and Arun says lots of them are coming back, bringing more people with them! Over the first 5-6 days of the campaign, the restaurant made enough money to pay at least one months rent and Arun says they are very grateful.
What’s more, Perth citizens are getting creative in finding ways to help out this highly valued restaurant. Last week, The Liberators (who are the same group known for impromptu dance parties on Perth trains) danced through the restaurant, bringing smiles and producing a Facebook video that scored over 33,000 views. Arun is very happy with the public support, and believes the restaurant will be able to make it through the hard times, but only if this support continues.
He says, “We are not expecting anyone to pay a lot of money, just come and enjoy and be part of it, so that one human being can nurture another human being by sharing what they have.”