Charity starts in the kitchen

CanWest News Service
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The chef admits what he thought when the concept of Robin des Bois, a restaurant dependent on volunteers, was first presented to him nearly two years ago: It wont work.

But Sebastien Courville quickly adds a caveat: Its not what I think today.

The chef admits what he thought when the concept of Robin des Bois, a restaurant dependent on volunteers, was first presented to him nearly two years ago: It wont work.

But Sebastien Courville quickly adds a caveat: Its not what I think today.

In the competitive world of Montreals restaurant business, Robin des Bois - thats how Robin Hood is known in French - has not only managed to keep its head above water, but to expand and also to donate $30,000 in profits to charities.

Founder-director Judy Servay remembers when she was shopping around the idea of a charity restaurant and people would say to her: Do you think people will go and cut potatoes free for you? Are you nuts?

For almost two years now, volunteers have been doing just that, some regularly.

Birgit Devroye, a student taking a break from university, likes to spend one or two days a week in the Robin des Bois kitchen.

I just needed to do something on a regular basis, she says.

For Devroye, volunteering at Robin des Bois is a way of gaining experience in a restaurant without the pressure, routine or responsibility of a paid job.

I feel good with the people here. They accept me as who I am. They dont criticize me.

According to Courville, although volunteers are an integral part of Robin des Boiss mission, they are wild cards because the staff have no idea what to expect when someone signs up on the Internet to help. Robin des Bois employs almost an equal number of paid staff to oversee them and ensure quality.

We are often pleasantly surprised, Courville says, though the paid staff have to pick up the slack because while customers tolerate errors of service, they judge bad food harshly.

The food has to be good, like any restaurant, Courville says.

Carol Painchaud, a former restaurant owner who recently joined Robin des Bois as a manager, says even if volunteers dont always have top skills, they come with good hearts.

They take care of the customers without expecting anything in return.

This attitude, he says, has a definite appeal to customers. The restaurant fills up at meal times.

Like Courville, Painchaud took the job at Robin des Bois because he was sold on the idea of doing something different. He says he also really believes in the project.

I like the idea of helping each other.

Servays founding principle was to create a community at Robin des Bois.

The seed of Robin des Bois came from Christmas parties Servay used to throw when she was a music producer. She realized how happy it made people to give of themselves.

A trip to Africa further opened her eyes.

There is a sense of community. Nobody is ever alone there - which has its other faults, but youre not alone.

She says one of the best business moves she made was to set up a board of directors for Robin des Bois, which gave the project credibility. Servay worked without pay the first few months, but started taking a salary when the new restaurant had bedded down.

Geographic location: Africa

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