In November 2019, Shaun Christie-David and Peter Jones-Best started Colombo Social. More than just a place to serve food, Colombo Social is a social enterprise restaurant, with the majority of their front of house staff being people seeking asylum. And during the pandemic, it became so much more.
“We built a restaurant around my mum’s food, which is funny,” says Shaun Christie-David, co-founder of Colombo Social. “ As a kid, there was a real clash of culture. Curries at school weren’t a thing back in the 1990s in the mainly white community I grew up in.”
But soon Shaun started to really appreciate the food and culture of his Sri Lankan background. And at the same time, he better understood how to be both Australian and a first generation migrant.
Shaun is no longer embarrassed by those Sri Lankan dishes from his youth. In fact, he now shares those recipes with more than 1,000 people each week. “I realised as an adult, food seemed to be a really good way to break down those racial barriers and stereotypes. All guards come down over a meal. I’ve learnt food is a great equalizer.”
Shaun always looked to his mum, affectionately known as “Amma” by anyone who meets her, as the guiding light for great quality food.
“Even when I lived overseas, my mates would go to mum’s house because her cooking was so good,” remembers Shaun.
Her food was the inspiration for Colombo Social — and she’s played a very special role in the business even before they opened. Umma is a part of every new menu.
“Before we opened in November 2019, mum was teaching us her recipes for Colombo Social, like any intuitive cook, she refused to use a spoon or a measuring cup. She only measures quantities using her hand”. Shaun laughs, “My mum is tiny and she was teaching her family recipes to my Head Chef, who is 6 foot 4. She’d be saying to him “use a handful” and I had to stop her and say, “Mum, his hand is the size of your head… this isn’t going to work in a commercial kitchen.”
Shaun and his mate and co-founder, Peter Jones-Best, agreed to go into business together over a particularly boozey meal hosted at “Amma’s” kitchen table after their best mates wedding early on a Sunday morning. And as they ate, they both agreed their business had to be more than just a for-profit restaurant.
“It was clear we both wanted to bring a social ethos to the mix,” Shaun continues. “It had to bring soul.”
Shaun and Peter's mums were always a constant driver for the duo, both had lengthy careers in childhood education. From an early age they were taught that no one is more talented or gifted than anyone else.
“It’s about giving people a chance to know how good they are and what their skill sets are and it’s so true,” says Shaun. The smartest people and the best people Peter and I know are from marginalised communities. But the reality is, they haven’t always had the same opportunities. What we’ve been able to prove through our work, is that when they do get the chance, you watch them skyrocket and go!”
Separated by distance, connected by food
And so Colombo Social was born. Shaun and Peter opened the restaurant doors in November 2019. When they opened, they expected they might have one or two restaurants over the next five years. And they would design some socially responsible events on the back of it.
Five months later, COVID-19 hit. Shaun spoke openly about the day he had to close the doors.
“I don’t think any hospitality business owner will ever forget the moment of that staff address,” says Shaun. “It will haunt you forever. A year and a bit later and I still get emotional.”
The sentiment that Shaun shares has been felt by many across the hospitality industry in the last 18 months.
“No one equips you with this stuff. No one equips you to lead a team. Your team expects you to have the answers — but in reality you often don’t have any.”
Shaun remembers walking in the day he and Peter realised they had to close Colombo Social.
“I had to tell my team that I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “But I did know that we needed to close the restaurant and I broke down in tears. It was devastating. It was heartbreaking. These kids were young. This was their first job. This was their chance.”
Like so many friends and colleagues working in restaurants, Shaun was spending 70 hours a week with his team. “They text my mum. They know my family. It’s a small business of 20 people and you become more than just colleagues. They become family.”
When the pandemic first hit, Shaun and Peter had employed seven asylum seeker staff and five international students, none of whom were eligible for any government benefits.
“They had families and they had no support. They came to Australia to seek a better life. But we didn’t know what they would be covered for, including Medicare. We paid them to stay at home. Thankfully, many of them have stayed with us and some have been able to find work closer to home.”
Finding a new purpose
Inspired by the community around them, Shaun and Peter found a new purpose during the pandemic.
“Still inspired by food and by connecting people, we pivoted to enable people through education, opportunity, and food to change lives,” says Shaun. “That was what we always wanted to do, but it went from a five-year-plan to a twelve-month-plan, in the middle of a pandemic, and with every barrier stacked up against us.”
Despite that, others looked to Shaun and Peter for help.
“Mission Australia called us. Our restaurant was closed and we had excess food that we weren’t sure what we would do with it,” says Shaun. “So we made the choice to donate it to the community members we knew well. We boxed up a whole heap of curries and everyone loved it. That was when we realised what was happening overseas — that many of the people losing the battle to COVID-19 were the marginalised people of colour with underlying health issues.”
At one point, Shaun and Peter were partnering with 27 different charity partners distributing their meals. And their impact keeps going. Since the pandemic started, they’ve distributed more than 75,000 meals, without sacrificing quality. .
“The support workers were using the meal delivery as a way to connect with their community, to check in on people and make sure they’re ok. That’s how we know what we’re doing makes a difference.”
Working collectively together
So what has Shaun learned through all of this?
“Something like a global pandemic becomes less about you as a business,” Shaun says without hesitation. “It becomes more about us as a community. Some of the best support that I have had has come from the people in the hospitality industry and the people in it.”
To keep adding to that, Colombo Social is also about to hire their next round of chefs to come through the Ability Social chef training program.
Shaun believes that the hospitality industry will come out stronger because they’re choosing not to compete anymore, but instead work collectively together. That's how true impact can happen and true change can happen.
“We also have a chance to make an impact individually,” Shaun adds “We change lives everyday just through our everyday interactions. A smile from a barista or a ‘How’s your day going?’ from the front of house staff can change someone's life in a way you just don’t know.”
Deputy is partnering with PlateitForward and Mirvac to raise funds to deliver 100,000 meals to those in need including casual, migrant, and other minority groups of shift workers that are not eligible for government assistance during this lockdown.
In the past month alone, Deputy has seen a 92% drop in shifts scheduled for retail workers across Greater Sydney — from hundreds of thousands of shifts to only seven thousand. It's a similar story within the hospitality sector with an 88% decline in scheduled shifts.
GIFT A SHIFT
You can help make a difference when you“Gift A Shift” by donating the equivalent of one day's work so that shift workers and their families can receive wholesome chef-cooked meals during these uncertain times.
As little as $10 will provide five hearty meals, $20 gives ten meals, $100 gives 50 meals and so it goes! Can you gift your shift? By giving little and large, together we can deliver 100,000 meals.