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The taste of community

3 May 2021 at 4:53 pm
Maggie Coggan
Shaun Christie-David is the co-founder of PlateitForward an enterprise keeping the community at its heart, providing meals as well as hospitality and food industry training and employment for vulnerable members of the community. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 3 May 2021 at 4:53 pm


The taste of community
3 May 2021 at 4:53 pm

Shaun Christie-David is the co-founder of PlateitForward an enterprise keeping the community at its heart, providing meals as well as hospitality and food industry training and employment for vulnerable members of the community. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

When Shaun Christie-David and PlateitForward co-founder Peter Jones-Best opened their Sri Lankan restaurant 12 months ago aiming to give refugees and asylum seekers a fresh start, they never thought they would have the impact they are having today. 

Just four months after opening Colombo Social, the outbreak of COVID-19 saw them have to shut down the venue and pledge all money raised from the restaurant into setting up a charity that would feed those suffering from serious food insecurity during the pandemic. 

The PlateitForward initiative is now a registered charity, with three businesses operating under its name: restaurant Colombo Social, a catering company called PlateitForward Hospitality, and paid training program Ability Social.

In terms of impact, the charity’s catering service donates a meal per person to a person experiencing or at risk of food insecurity. This has amounted to over 50,500 meals for asylum seekers, students on temporary visas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and rough sleepers. 

The enterprise has also employed 20 asylum seekers, four Aboriginal Staff and two members on disability pension across its three businesses, providing approximately 5,000 hours of employment and training to these staff members.

For his efforts, Christie-David has been named one of the AMP Foundation’s Tomorrow Makers. 

In this week’s Changemaker, he discusses his impact journey, the learnings of running a charity through a pandemic and the benefits of a strong community.      

Why did you choose a Sri Lankan restaurant as a way of creating impact? 

We always wanted to do Sri Lankan, but the why for the Sri Lankan restaurant was twofold. It’s a way for first generation migrants to really own a culture. The recipes that we use in the restaurant are my mum’s recipes that I used to be embarrassed about as a kid because they were so different to what everyone else was eating, and so this is a way for me to be proud of my heritage. 

Pete’s background is hospitality and my background is doing a bit of work in the not-for-profit social impact space. And we always said that if we did something we wanted to give back, but it needed to be about education and employment. This came from our parents I think. My mum was an early childhood educator, and Pete’s mum worked with [children] with special needs, and they always told us to help other people through jobs and education. 

We wanted to support asylum seekers through employment opportunities, because when we were growing up Sri Lanka had the largest portion of asylum seekers arriving in Australia because of the civil war. [We wanted] this to be a place where they feel comfortable and they can improve their English and learn helpful skills. But it was also a model that [would allow] them to feel part of something bigger and allow our customers to be part of something bigger.

You opened up Colombo Social four months before COVID-19 hit Australia. What were some of your biggest learnings running a new organisation during this time? 

Our biggest thing was the disparity that existed in our communities. When the pandemic hit, we shut down our restaurant and set up a meal donation program because our wider community was suffering. We started donating over 1,000 meals a week during that period for people that were going hungry. What that showed us was that a really developed nation actually has some really difficult circumstances as well. So that was one of the biggest learnings. 

Another learning was the resilience and the strength of communities as well and how collectively we can all band together. The hospitality industry helped us during this time, we had large corporates like Commonwealth Bank help us after a single phone call, donating a whole heap of kitchen space and donations in kind. There were just so many incredible and amazing people that stepped up and really helped out.

Did you think 10 years ago that you would be doing this job?

I mean 10 years ago, I had a great job, I was at Macquarie Bank, making way more money than I’m making now. But I always wanted to do something in the restaurant space but never did I think this would be what it was, probably ever in my life, let alone 10 years ago.

What do you love the most about your job?

Every day I get to work with the most incredible, resilient, strong people. [From] asylum seekers in the restaurant who have been through such trauma [yet] have the biggest smiles and the best attitudes and [are] possibly the best workforce I’ve ever managed, to people who have battled addiction and are now going through our training school. These are people that went from not seeing their families for 20 years to one of them telling me the other day that he’s going home for the first time in 20 years because he feels successful after being disowned for pretty much his whole adult life. To hear those stories and to know that this job has created a wider community that helps facilitate that is amazing. 

But on the other side of that, I also get to meet and facilitate with really strong senior managers in some of the largest institutions in Australia, like the AMP Foundation and Commonwealth Bank. So it’s the community and the people that we get to work with on all sides of the spectrum that have a purpose and a passion to just do the right thing. I think we are in a very fortunate position to have a connection between people that would never have ever had a chance to talk to each other and to come together otherwise. 

And when you’re not at Colombo Social, what do you like to do in your spare time? 

Look, between the charity and the restaurant there’s not a lot of spare time but I still go home to my parents house and share a meal with mum and dad and all my nieces. And that’s where I like to be.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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