For two decades now, restaurants have been encouraging diners to add a little extra to their bills for a good cause: providing much-needed support to local homeless and community services. Last year alone, the DineSmart initiative distributed more than $170,000 to grassroots organisations focused on housing, employment, wellbeing, food relief and emergency support.

For restaurateur Sam Christie, it’s been an ongoing source of personal pride. He first signed up to DineSmart in the mid-2010s with Southeast Asian eatery Longrain in Melbourne (he’s no longer involved with the business), and has continued the tradition over the years with his other venues, including The Apollo and Cho Cho San in Sydney’s Potts Point. Christie credits StreetSmart founder Adam Robinson with opening his eyes to the impact his teams can create in the immediate area, since the program keeps funds within the neighbourhood.

“Being in Surry Hills and Potts Point, we’re surrounded by people who are disadvantaged,” says Christie. “It’s good to be able to contribute, and it’s great for the staff as well.”

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The barrier to entry is low – StreetSmart supplies restaurants with signs and flyers to hand out and owners just need to give staff a quick heads-up on the program, which runs throughout December. The rest is on the customers, who can add a $2 donation to their bill when dining at participating venues. The amount goes to DineSmart to distribute to community organisations – a win-win.

“Throw a logo onto the menu and have a 10-minute chat to the staff and everybody is onto it,” says Christie. “We encourage diners to leave more too, through conversation about it. We have certain staff members who are great at being ambassadors. A lot of our customers are really positive about it and leave $50 or $100 on top of the $2, so they’re into it.”

Between The Apollo’s modern Greek share plates and Cho Cho San’s izakaya-style Japanese, the two eateries are popular hubs in Potts Point’s bustling Macleay Street. Both sites get a lot of the same regulars, and even share a few staff members. And they’re especially busy at Christmas, with end-of-year festivities and people celebrating by eating and drinking more. That makes the annual December timing of DineSmart all the more vital, especially in spreading the Christmas spirit to take positive action for those in need.

Having those two restaurants in the same neighbourhood for the past decade, Christie has seen the local homelessness crisis first-hand. “There’s a big drop-in centre and church nearby called the Wesley Mission. We see the same people day in and day out on our street. You get to know them: I smile and say ‘hello’,” he says.

He recalls a homeless Indigenous woman named Rosie who passed away this year – everyone in the neighbourhood knew her well and now feels that loss. Those examples put a human face on an issue that can sometimes seem abstract.

That’s what makes DineSmart special: it keeps funds local. The initiative uses customers’ donations to award grants to worthwhile charities in the same area as the restaurants involved. Last year’s focus was directed toward upskilling and training people facing barriers to employment, while this year’s distribution will reach more broadly across all areas of need.

The Apollo Restaurant Group’s 2023 fundraising efforts contributed to several local charities. The Bread and Butter Project used its grant to train refugees and asylum seekers to become bakers, while Darcy Street Project ran additional upskilling and employment workshops for residents in crisis accommodation. Two Good Co was able to bolster its Cook and Connect program, which helps women of all ages learn kitchen basics, get certified in food hygiene practices and ultimately produce a community lunch. Also benefiting directly were the clothing charity Dress for Success and the food and employment initiative Heart Cafe.

Those direct results make participation worthwhile for Christie and his staff. “I think with what’s going on in the world at the moment, the homeless tend to get forgotten quite often, especially leading up to Christmas,” he says. “I don’t think that’s very fair. I’d love for DineSmart to grow, and I implore other restaurants to sign up and get involved because it doesn’t cost you a cent, and it makes you feel really good doing it.”

DineSmart 2023 runs from December 1 to 31, with restaurant registration still open.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of DineSmart.