Dining for one euro: Salerno’s social restaurant is no soup kitchen

By Stefania Marin, Scarp de’ tenis

Opened in summer 2015, Elpis is the first social restaurant to open in the south-west Italian city of Salerno. The brainchild of the not-for-profit association L’Abbraccio [meaning ’embrace], a meal here has the token price of one euro.

On a balmy launch night, Italian Minister for Employment and Welfare, Giuliano Poletti, was there to cut the ribbon. “There will always be the need for a ‘social emergency room’,” he said. “This is a wonderful initiative, because it meets a need, and makes use of a space that had fallen into disuse.”

Minister of Labour and Social Policies minister Giuliano Poletti cuts the ribbon at the opening of Salerno's first one-euro restaurant. Photo courtesy of Scarp de’ Tenis

Set up in a former primary school, the restaurant was offered for use by the municipality of Salerno and has been given sustain its growth and place in the city. Matteo Marzano, President of L’Abbraccio explained, “We are immensely grateful to the companies who supply food free of charge, to the professionals who give their time for free and to our tireless volunteers.

“It is thanks to them that we have been able to set up and develop this initiative. We want to be that part of southern Italy that works and builds a future, in small but concrete steps.”

To understand the history of the restaurant, however, we have to take a step back, to the day the association L’Abbraccio set this ‘social emergency room’ in motion – an intervention model designed to tackle the acute phase of hardship.

Doors open to everyone

A large donation from the Waldesian Church allowed the project to take its first steps.

The restaurant’s kitchens and dining hall were designed and built from scratch, with the walls painted grey and orange. A line from the film Pay It Forward was added on one side.

“We’ve taken the best and the positive that the city has given us, from its institutions, sponsors and volunteers,” said Marzano. “Salerno needed us to take action against the new forms of poverty that are beginning to emerge.”

From day one, the restaurant opened its doors to people experiencing hardship, adversity or solitude. Marzano wanted to make one thing very clear: “We wanted to open a restaurant, not a soup kitchen.”

Taking its name from the ancient Greek word for ‘hope’, Elpis is open every day from 12.30 – 3.30pm, serving a hundred meals a day over two sessions. Access to the service does not require ‘proof of poverty’. To be eligible, potential service users must go through a support service, which issues a card entitling the holder to one meal a day for one euro, for a period of three months. For those under 16, the meals are free, and various charities, institutions and parishes help to direct people towards the service.

Volunteers from the association L’Abbraccio distribute meals during the arrival of migrants in Salerno. Photo courtesy of Scarp de’ Tenis

One characteristic of the social restaurant is the ‘suspended meal’, similar to the famous ‘suspended coffee’ concept, found in cafes around the world, where customers pay for an extra meal that can be given to someone in need who comes in later.

In two months, the restaurant has served an average of 30 people a day – people who have lost their jobs, people who have never been employed, families with small children, pensioners. The kitchens are staffed by numerous volunteers, along with students from the local Santa Caterina-Amendola catering college, giving them a unique educational and employment experience.

“The social restaurant is not a form of welfarism,” said Maurizio Caporaso, vice-president of L’Abbraccio, “it is a helping hand, a way of sharing responsibility. The user remains central to what we do.”

The restaurant has one important rule: each person is entitled to use the service for a maximum of three months. “We firmly believe that if everyone does their part, people can become independent once more, without giving in to the adversities that life throws at them,” added Caporaso.

Not just a hot meal

Those who come here for a hot meal also have the opportunity to share their problems. Caporaso said, “This is where we can monitor people’s needs. Guaranteeing food is a first step. We have installed shower facilities, and we also provide clothes. Some of the people who come here are sleeping on the streets.”

Nearby, there is a community for minors; home to a number of unaccompanied children who arrived in the Salerno by boat in the past months. Volunteers from the restaurant have played an active role in welcoming migrants to Salerno, distributing around 4,000 meals.

The service is currently limited to the eastern part of the city, but may be extended in future depending on the needs of the community.

Translated from Italian to English by Fiona Peterson/Translators Without Borders