Cafe’s mis­sion food for thought

DAILY GRIND Feed­ing Auck­land’s home­less has changed how Lee Strydom sees the world. The Merge Cafe man­ager tells Jess Etheridge why he now thinks twice be­fore judg­ing a book by its cover.

Central Leader - - NEWS -

Ev­ery Thurs­day Lee Strydom comes home to a roast meal.

‘‘We have pork belly, roast chicken. We al­ways change it, mix it up be­cause it will get bor­ing if you come home and have the same thing ev­ery day.’’

Home is his work­place – Life­wise’s Merge Cafe on Karanga­hape Rd. The es­tab­lish­ment has just cel­e­brated four years of feed­ing Auck­land’s home­less.

‘‘It’s more than just a reg­u­lar cafe,’’ the 26-year-old man­ager says.

‘‘I build re­ally good re­la­tion­ships with my cus­tomers be­cause they’re more reg­u­lar than just one-off cus­tomers. So I kind of like that as­pect of be­ing a home away from home.’’

Cafe staff cook two kinds of meals each day, five days a week, for the hun­dreds of cus­tomers who pop in.

‘‘Fri­days are ex­cit­ing be­cause we have a bar­be­cue out­side, so that’s pretty cool,’’ Strydom says. ‘‘But in the win­ter it’s fish and chips on Fri­days.

‘‘Ev­ery other day is just $4 a meal and they get veges, a starch and a pro­tein. ’’

‘‘Some of them come from very far, es­pe­cially the older ones. So they come on our spe­cial days like Thurs­day for a roast. I reckon about more than 100 peo­ple would come on Thurs­days, then just un­der that for ev­ery other day.’’

Strydom says in the year he has worked at Merge his own views on what home­less­ness is have changed.

‘‘I think I was very ig­no­rant at first, think­ing: ‘Peo­ple are just home­less be­cause they’re lazy’.

‘‘But then I worked here and it was such an eye-opener. I think it’s so im­por­tant be­cause each per­son is so in­di­vid­ual, they have their own rea­sons of where they are to­day.’’

For those new to the cafe it can be a shock, Strydom says.

‘‘It is un­for­tu­nate a lot of our cus­tomers – maybe I shouldn’t say this – but they’re not as well­groomed as most of us think one should be.’’

The Devon­port res­i­dent has worked in hos­pi­tal­ity since he was 14. ‘‘I just love the cus­tomer ser­vice as­pect of it,’’ he says. ‘‘Know­ing that all the cus­tomers are happy re­ally made me feel good – mak­ing some­one else feel good. So I guess I’ve al­ways craved that side of hos­pi­tal­ity, and it’s a great job.’’

Photo: JESS ETHERIDGE

Do­ing good: Lee Strydom helps feed the city’s home­less.

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