Elliot Costello, Elena Critchley and Alby Tomassi at the Feast of Merit cafe Photo: Leigh Henningham
Canadian-born chef Rob Auger learnt his chops at Toronto's Four Seasons hotel, Michelin-starred Chateau Neercanne in the Netherlands and alongside Andrew McConnell at Restaurant 312.
So when he overhears diners at StrEAT in Flemington remark, ''That was actually good'', it cuts like a knife.
Glancing at the on-trend menu, StrEAT could be just another buzzy neighbourhood cafe. But it's a social enterprise and one of a growing number of Melbourne hospitality businesses whose mission goes beyond delivering good food and coffee.
Kinfolk co-founder Jarrod Briffa (third from left) with volunteers. Photo: Justin McManus
In Richmond, YGAP, a charity best known for collecting 3.7 million 5¢ coins, will open a restaurant, Feast of Merit, in Swan Street on March 1 to help pay for its good works and Kinfolk Cafe in Bourke Street has given, since it opened in 2010, about $100,000 to programs it supports.
Elliot Costello, son of World Vision Australia chief Tim Costello, said YGAP had in the past raised money through balls, donations and its national 5¢ piece appeal.
But its volunteers, in their 20s and 30s, now see self-funding as the future. And social-enterprise businesses can provide regular, direct incomes.
Mr Costello says it's a move away from traditional forms of fund-raising, ''so we're not dependent on government funds, trusts and foundations or even individual donors''.
Going out for dinner is ''an easy way to contribute to change by buying their coffee, glass of wine or a meal that supports a not-for-profit [organisation]''.
In 2010, YGAP opened the not-for-profit, largely volunteer-run Kinfolk Cafe in Bourke Street. It is now independently run but YGAP still gets funding from it, along with two other charities.
Feast of Merit, as a restaurant, is a step up but, after Kinfolk, its directors are hardly going into it blind. Mr Costello - YGAP's sole full-time employee - is a former corporate adviser, Alby Tomassi is owner of Banff cafe and Jimmi Jamz restaurant and Elena Critchley is an interior designer. Feast of Merit profits will go towards youth education programs in Ghana, Rwanda and Cambodia.
''Every dollar from the business that is profit is injected into YGAP's outcomes,'' Mr Costello says.
Since its opening, Kinfolk has given about $100,000 to programs in Rwanda, Ghana, Palm Island and for disadvantaged Melburnians. But what makes the cafe even more remarkable is the army of tradespeople and designers who have donated skills, materials and equipment towards its recent expansion and the roster of volunteers who keep the cafe pumping.
One of Kinfolk's founders, Jarrod Briffa, says about 40 people participate in the weekly training and mentoring program, including school-leavers seeking work experience, retirees, new arrivals hoping to make friends and the long-term unemployed,'' he says.
''It's a really dynamic group of people and some really beautiful stuff comes out of all of them working together, getting to know each other and contributing to something much bigger than themselves.''
Set up in 2008, social enterprise StrEAT provides experience, training and support to young people overcoming issues such as homelessness, long-term unemployment, says Mr Auger, StrEAT's food services manager.
StrEAT, which runs a commercial kitchen, the Flemington cafe and two CBD coffee carts, employs two or three experienced staff for every trainee. They demonstrate how hospitality environments should function and pass on life skills.
''We've had young people come through the program who've had three or four generations of unemployment in their family,'' he says. ''For them to be able to find the motivation to get up, be on time and be accountable is near impossible because they don't have those supports at home role-modelling what a work ethic is.
''I'd love to turn out chefs and fantastic baristas but … if this gives them the confidence to walk into a workplace and take any type of job, that's kind of a victory for us.''
■The Age Good Food Under $30 will be available for $5 with The Age next weekend from participating newsagents, while stocks last. It is also available in selected bookshops and online at theageshop.com.au for $9.99.