K' Road Characters - Manu from Merge Cafe
A kind gesture goes a long way around Christmas time, says Manu from Merge Café.
“Try and include the street whanau in your Christmas celebrations. I'm not saying spend the day with them, but if you see someone sleeping rough, say hello, maybe give someone a hug. And, of course, you could give them a Merge Café meal card – anything that will make them feel that someone cares a tiny bit for them."
What is Merge Café about?
Lifewise shut down their soup kitchen in 2010 to set up Merge to create a connected community where people could come together – to merge. And that's everyone, not just one particular group within the community.
Everyone is welcomed with service and a smile. We try and focus on the positive, not the negative. There is no judgement. Instead there is dignity and sharing of views. That's the social objective.
As manager of the café, I also have the business objective of increasing sales, so we've recently invested in a better coffee machine and a new food display cabinet to attract the wider community and passers-by.
What attracted you to the job and what keeps you at it?
After I applied for this job, I came in to look around and spoke to a couple of guys and realised I loved the difference this place could make to people's lives and thought, yes I want this job. I believe in what Lifewise are doing here.
I believe in the dignity of choice it offers. For example, we don't just offer soup. For breakfast you can choose scrambled egg, toast, sausage etc. If you don't have $2 or $4, then that is okay. We won't turn anyone away.
Having choice is important for pride and mana. Eating somewhere regularly and talking to others (and not just street whanau), brings back dignity.
What numbers are you dealing with?
On a typical day we prepare 120 lunches, sometimes 150.
For breakfast we will prep food for 25 breakfasts, like scrambled eggs, sausages, toast, baked beans - and then we make more if it is needed. We also do coffee and cabinet food.
What are some of the challenges of perception with Merge?
There are two challenges we face with people who are not street whanau. One is they think it is a café for the homeless so they don't come in. Well Merge is for everyone and you're welcome whoever you are.
Secondly, many people who know about us, think that they shouldn't come in and eat here because they're then eating the cheap food that should be for the street whanau; taking it way from people who can't afford it.
But Merge is not like that. You help us by simply walking in as a paying customer because you're “merging" by buying breakfast, lunch or coffee here. Or doing a 'Pay It Forward'.
What is Pay It Forward?
Quite simply, you buy a meal for someone else. Some people buy a meal for themselves and pay for two or buy a coffee and pay for two. Or you can donate a dollar into our Pay It Forward system. Once there is enough for a meal it goes to one of the street whanau who come in hungry.
You can also buy a $20 five meal voucher to give to someone on the street. They can bring in the card and get it clipped for a meal.
What were you doing before you came to Merge?
Before I worked here I was bartending, but I'd managed other cafes and kitchens, including at the Auckland Art Gallery. Back in India I worked in IT and had a business degree. I have a PG Dip in Business from here.
What makes K' Road a good place to work?
I love K' Road although I confess I used to be a bit intimidated by it before I started working here. Now I think it is just awesome.
It's different from any other place I've worked. Businesses are so good – lots of businesses help us. People are so nice and down to earth. It is a close community. Everyone looks out for everyone.
Have you a story to share that demonstrates what Merge is?
Last year the Vodafone Warriors came in, did a bbq and hung out with the street whanau. One of our regulars, who is in his sixties, came up in tears afterwards and said he'd woken feeling very dejected and lonely that morning and had been contemplating suicide but decided to come along to Merge. He ended up feeling so connected that day that he found reason to continue living. Since then he has moved into accommodation, so it really made a big difference to his life.
That is just one of heaps of stories that make me glad to be here.
Your last thought?
If you have the time, we're doing a Christmas lunch here on the 21st December. Whatever you do, don't forget our street whanau as we head into Christmas.