Milan, the fashion capital of Italy, has lots to offer. Including some of the best gourmet and Michelin restaurants in the boot. Since November 2014 it has yet another special restaurant, Ruben, where a meal only costs 1 euro.
The idea came from Ernesto Pellegrini, ex president of the famous football club Inter and now owner of the Pellegrini Group SpA, a firm providing catering services and food supplies for offices.
This innovative restaurant has four believes. It provides a clean and beautiful space, where people can feel at home and share not just food but also their time around the dining table. As we all have different tastes, diets and religions, Ruben always offers several different choices, including vegetarian and vegan alternatives. And finally Ruben requires adult clients to pay a nominal fee of 1 euro per meal, while the under 16 eat for free.
Why 1 euro?
The core idea is to offer a dignified choice to people in need. Dignity is the secret ingredient of this recipe to success. A big city like Milan provides about 9 thousand meals a day in soup kitchens. But Ruben is different. It’s a restaurant. That 1 euro is symbolic, but it makes people feel better. It’s not charity if you pay for it. In Italy there are 4 million people living below the poverty threshold. Surprisingly enough, most of them are Italian: pensioners that cannot make ends meet, but also parents who lost their jobs to the crisis and cannot feed their children anymore. When life crumbles on you out of the blue, it might be difficult to start begging for a warm meal. “That’s why we decided to ask our clients to pay 1 euro, so that people would not feel ashamed of coming to our restaurant” says Christian Uccellatore, restaurant manager.
Who works at Ruben?
Surprisingly, Ruben’s employees are not all volunteers. Waiters and cooks are all professionals with a regular working contract. The restaurant is self service, in order to optimize working hours and leave clients a bit more intimacy during the meal. “At Ruben we also have volunteers though” says Christian “they spend their time in the restaurant listening to people. Our clients are all facing big difficulties and going through harsh times, therefore it is good for them to know that here they can also find patient ears as well as moral support.”
Who can benefit from the restaurant?
The restaurant isn’t open to everyone. In order to make sure to help those that need it the most, people must apply to become Ruben’s clients. After an interview with a specific office, suitable people are registered in the system and receive a badge, valid for 60 days, which will allow them to eat at Ruben every night (the restaurant is only open for dinner). After 60 days, people must reapply for a new badge. As Uccellatore says, “This way we can spot the people in real, yet not extreme, need that Ruben is meant for.”
So how’s the balance sheet? Does it work?
In the case of Ruben, we cannot speak of an economic profit, as there isn’t any. There is however a great humanitarian profit, which increased very fast and seems to promise extremely well. Ruben counts 2700 registered clients a year and serves up to 500 meals a day:
“80% of people coming here are families, the rest are mostly lonely pensioners and divorced men, seeking for company during dinner. Seeing those distressed people smiling while happily sharing a meal is the greatest proof of Ruben’s success”
The restaurant’s name was personally chosen by Ernesto, who dedicated it to someone he knew a long time ago:
“Ruben was a peculiar and yet extraordinary man, who lived in our farmstead his whole life, sleeping in the barn on a straw bed. Extremely well educated, Ruben spent his free time and money on history books and roasted chicken quaffed with red wine. In the early 60’s though we were dispossessed from our land and Ruben became homeless. I promised my young self to help him as soon as my finances got better, but I arrived too late. One cold winter night Ruben froze to death in a lifeless shack. So I promised myself I would help people like him, who struggled through life but never lost their dignity. And in 2014 I finally managed.”
This is a story with a somewhat happy ending, but yet it makes us realize something important. It takes a great disgrace hitting us right in the face to wake us up from our comfort cocoon and make us see the world with the right eyes.
Ruben is the first 1 euro restaurant in Italy, but hopefully not the last. It has shown to be a great way to help without making people feel uncomfortable about their situation. So I’d say: to a world full of places like Ruben. Because dignity is what makes us human.