By Sally Blundell for Frank Film
A new eatery is upending our kitchen rules.
Just off SH1 in the southern suburb of Caversham in Dunedin, The Bowling Club dishes up to 1000 main meals a day with just 14 staff and a $4 price tag.
If people can’t afford to pay, that’s OK.
“Some people pay extra, some people pay less or not at all,” says co-founder Jackie Bannon. “We record how many free meals we give out and then we record how many donations we get – usually it balances out.”
Bannon and Liam Arthur opened The Bowling Club – named for its BYO dinner bowl philosophy, nothing to do with bowling – in a food truck during Matariki last year. They were inspired by Jane Beecroft, the legendary “lunch lady” who dished out $4 Hare Krishna meals at the Otago University Students’ Association for 24 years until her retirement earlier this year.
Liam had been studying philosophy and politics at Otago University, Jackie came from a community development background. Both were concerned at growing economic disparity and wanted to see if it was possible to run a viable business serving mains for such a low price.
It was. High demand prompted the young entrepreneurs to look for a permanent location and in February this year they moved into their new premises, a former pub, café, then Japanese restaurant in Dunedin’s busy southern suburbs.
The new location is big enough to have a washing up area so customers can rinse their dishes afterwards as well as a playpen for children and assorted tables and chairs. It is open for dinner from 3.30 to 8pm Thursday to Saturday, with $4 main meals and $3 smoothies or dessert.
The menu, posted on their Facebook page, changes each day with a focus on healthy vegetarian food, with gluten free and vegan offerings – on the day Frank Film visits, it is veggie fried rice with a sweet and sour salad topped with Chinese style marinated peanuts – and the option of a pasta meal which stays the same all week.
It’s a winning formula. Where a table for four at a mid-range restaurant could cost around $80, The Bowling Club can feed a family of four for just $16 – $28 if you include dessert.
“We’ve budgeted out to pretty much eat here three nights a week,” says one young father of two children. “It didn’t cost us any more than we would have been spending anyway but we were getting much better food, much nicer food, and more variety.”
He is not alone. By the time the improvised gong marks opening time on a cold weekday afternoon, customers are already queuing up in a line of puffer jackets, pushchairs and plastic bowls. Within one and a half hours they have sold about 200 meals.
To break even, they need to sell 600 meals a day and all staff are paid a living wage, but it works says Arthur, because it is efficient. They buy ingredients in bulk, the menu is strictly vegetarian and The Bowling Club is only open four hours a day, “so we can employ people for four hours to serve food. And we only do one thing so it’s very streamlined to make.”
Financially, he says, it’s worked out better than they ever expected. “Sometimes you think, man, this place isn’t big enough, but you do it anyway – it’s working. It’s not really about feeding people necessarily, it’s about bringing people together.”
“Love the food, love the camaraderie,” agrees a happy customer. “Even if there’s a wait for half an hour it is so affordable and it mean you are paying it forward a bit for those who can’t afford it – which makes it a win win for everybody.”
They’re never going to make a killing off it, says Bannon, “but that’s not the point. It’s fuelled by quite a lot of frustration of just the general inequality in the world. A lot of times people accept that that’s just the way things are, but you can try and be creative and see what you can do – that’s why we have this.”
She and Arthur are now hoping other people will set up similar operations in their communities.
The door’s open,” says Arthur. “If people want to start it, they can talk to us – maybe we can even help them out.”