26 March 2024

The fine dining kitchen that delivers meals with a heart but without a cost

| Michele Tydd
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People eating in a restaurant.

The Lighthouse Church’s Dining with Dignity’s dinner night crowd. Photo: Supplied.

A dining revolution is occurring in Wollongong in an unlikely location.

The Lighthouse Church in Railway Square has revamped its community kitchen services with a pop-up fine dining experience for not only the homeless and lonely, but also for the growing number of families and singles finding the economic squeeze a struggle.

And it’s all on the house.

“After COVID-19 we wanted to elevate the dining experience,” says community engagement and connection leader Zane Herrera.

The traditional soup kitchen environment has been replaced with a restaurant-standard two-course meal twice a week. An area in the foyer is now set with tablecloths, cutlery and napkins. And occasionally, background music is provided by talented volunteers.

“Since we started, we’ve had a range of dishes from fettuccine boscaiola to sate chicken and butter chicken – although we’ve raised the standard, the food is still nutritious and homestyle,” says Zane.

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Takeaway meals are still available for those who prefer it.

Zane, together with senior leader Josh Hammann, started to implement the changes when in-house meals resumed in 2022.

“The aim was a quality dining experience, but more than that we wanted heart behind it too,” he says.

The program, called Dining with Dignity, is partnered with community services such as after-school homework tutoring, clothes laundering and haircuts.

With the economic squeeze, the Church had noticed the number of people seeking food relief ballooned and included all ages and backgrounds.

“We were getting about 100 people before COVID and it jumped to around 200 when we restarted the new program, so to manage that we went from one to two nights a week,” says Zane.

“Our volunteers and myself spend most of the time mixing with our guests and the feedback is that they feel safe and valued. Some say it’s been the only positive interaction with other people they’ve had all week.

“And of course it helps the budget because it’s one less meal they have to worry about each week.

“Some of our diners have never tasted food of this quality, and the response has been favourable.”

Two men wearing aprons and holding food.

The Lighthouse team – Josh Hammann (left) and Zane Herrera, who came up with the Dining with Dignity program. Photo: Supplied.

At this stage there is no children’s menu, but Zane says the kids seem happy with whatever is going.

“They always love the desserts,” he says with a laugh.

However, running any food outlet like this where bookings are non-existent is a challenge.

“We’ve found the best way to get around that is to track the previous three weeks and average out the food we need to cook,” says Zane.

Not so easy though, is finding experienced volunteer cooks.

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The Church and its congregation cover most of the food costs, but to produce the quantity and quality of the food required, experienced cooks are needed.

“We’re hoping to eventually employ experienced cooks, but it is beyond our present budget so we’d welcome any help we could get on that score,” says Zane.

Although they mainly rely on supermarket desserts, St Mary’s School’s hospitality department pitches in three times a term and provides desserts including carrot cake, brownies and tiramisu.

Zane, a former gym customer services officer, and his wife Ashley have been working with disadvantaged people for nearly a decade.

They joined the team during COVID and Ashley, a trained teacher, takes the Tuesday night tutoring sessions.

“This work is perfect for us because as a family we have a strong commitment to volunteering with kindness at its heart,” says Zane.

For more information, head to The Lighthouse website.

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