KUALA LUMPUR: Over 30 years ago, a Hindu religious teacher had a vision of a world without hunger. He then started a vegetarian restaurant, which allowed patrons to “eat as they wish and pay as they feel”.
The idea introduced by the Swami Shantanand Saraswathi in 1985 found traction immediately and many began to dine at Annalakshmi Vegetarian Restaurant, then a humble shop lot in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.
The restaurant, which served both southern and northern Indian vegetarian delicacies was fully run by volunteers, all of whom were a part of a prayer group led by Swami Shantanand who had come to Malaysia from Rishikesh in India in 1970s.
Senior restaurant manager Mohan Narayanan told CNA that in the early days, the cooking was all done by “aunties and grandmothers who had a flair for cooking”.
“There were no professionals, no chefs and no recipe books. What sets us apart from all the other vegetarian restaurants out there, is the love we put into making the food,” he said beaming with pride.
The Swami's teachings are still followed closely by the volunteers. Mr Mohan said the driving force behind the restaurant was actually elements of spirituality.
Photos of Swami Shantanand, who passed away in 2005, can be seen hanging in the restaurant, adorned with garlands.
“Athithi Dhevo Bhava, which means guests are gods. That is the teachings of our Guruji and we have always strived to keep up with his teachings,” said the restaurant operations manager Soma Chandran.
These days, the Annalakshmi Riverside Restaurant is located in Brickfields. It still serves up homemade style Indian food for which customers are free to pay any amount they like.
However, there are challenges in this operating model. Despite their efforts to serve the community, volunteers said there have been instances of customers abusing the system.
FROM RETIREES TO PROFESSIONALS, VOLUNTEERS KEEP THINGS RUNNING
Diners at Annalakshmi Riverside get an al-fresco experience while overlooking the Klang River which runs through the city.
After helping themselves to the buffet, diners walk to the end of the line to pass their desired amount of money to the volunteers who man the cash collection.
Though the lunch items were limited to Indian cuisine, tea time snacks comprised local delicacies such as curry puffs, spring rolls and Kuih Ketayap (crepe with sweet coconut filling).
The restaurant serves quite a few Sri Lankan dishes. A volunteer explained that this was because the pioneers who cooked for the Annalakshmi kitchen were mostly of Sri Lankan descent.
Mr Soma explained that the riverside restaurant has three staff members on the front of the house. They are assisted by volunteers who come in on fixed days of the week.
“Our volunteers are made up of professionals such as doctors, lawyers and engineers as well as many retirees, so they try to volunteer whenever they are free,” he said.
ABUSE AND WASTAGE
The absence of a price tag, however, has made it difficult for customers to appreciate the value of the food.
A volunteer who helps at the restaurant over the weekends, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said many customers take too much food and end up wasting most of it.
“Because the food we serve is buffet style, many people come and pile up their plates. We have told them over and over again that they could always come back for seconds, but most of them prefer not to do that.
“Then at the end of the day, a large part of what went on their plates, goes into the dustbin. For us, that is heartbreaking, because that food is hard work and it could have satiated someone else's hunger,” she said.
People have also abused the privilege of being allowed to pay what they wished.
“Just last weekend, an entire family walked in, had a full meal and paid only RM5 (S$1.60). We are not being calculative, but that is an example of how the system can be abused by people,” said the volunteer.
However, Mr Soma said there were also instances of diners stepping forward to compensate the restaurant when they saw others abusing the payment system.
“We are grateful to all our customers, regardless of how much they give,” he added.
THE FINE DINING EXPERIENCE
For those seeking a more upmarket experience, there is also a fine dining wing on the premises.
Not to be confused with the Annalakshmi Riverside, the Annalakshmi restaurant is located just above the former. Set in a classy interior, which has the capacity to hold over 200 customers, the restaurant is tastefully decorated in antique Indian furniture.
Soft classical music adds to the ambience as does the warm lights. The house staff here do not wear uniforms or hats, but are instead dressed in traditional Indian wear.
The food for both establishments are prepared in the same kitchen.
Mr Mohan shared that the Annalakshmi restaurant also practiced the "pay as you feel concept" until 2013, when diners requested for fixed prices.
"We began noticing that many of our regular customers stopped coming and when we spoke to them, they shared that it became difficult for them to entertain in our restaurant as it was crowded and noisy," he recounted.
"So after a year-long discussion with the entire prayer group that runs the organisation, we decided that we will have fixed price for the restaurant and maintain 'pay as you feel' for the Riverside."
The food served here is largely similar to what is offered at the Riverside restaurant but more elaborate. It also serves a variety of Indian drinks such as lassi (yogurt drink) and filter coffee.
The price for the buffet is fixed at RM25 while the ala-carte meals range anything between RM10 and RM25.
The Annalakshmi Restaurant has branches in Singapore, Chennai, Penang, Johor Bahru and Perth.