Azem Elmaz noticing increase in those needing help

By Myles Peterson

Shepparton’s Azem Elmaz has a business strategy most hardened capitalists would scoff at, he gives away his product.

For 28 years, the Wyndham St restaurateur has refused to charge those who cannot pay.

As a result, thousands of locals down on their luck have known a day without hunger.

It started out simply.

‘‘When we opened the shop people they would come, misfortunates or homeless would come, and say ‘Can I pay you for a meal next week?’ Mr Elmaz said.

‘‘I thought hmm, well okay. Okay. So next week comes and nothing happened, and the week after, nothing happened.’’

Mr Elmaz smiled and said he had epiphany. ‘‘Ah-ha! I said to the missus, whoever wants to pay, let them pay, but if they haven’t got any money, don’t ask them for it.’’

And a Shepparton institution was born.

While reluctant to put a figure to the number of people he currently feeds, Mr Elmaz said it was ‘‘a lot’’, and constantly growing.

This winter he has seen a big increase in those asking for a meal at the regular soup kitchen he supports at the skate park and the small outlet he maintains at the back of his business.

The restaurateur reported the most worrying trend was the increase in the number of families asking for help.

The calls are increasing daily.

In response, Mr Elmaz makes up packages of meals and delivers them to homes himself.

‘‘Some people they don’t have transport. We don’t mind, that’s just what we do,’’ Mr Elmaz said.

The efforts receive a lot of support and Mr Elmaz singled out Unilever Tatura and Coles for their ongoing donations.

Scores of volunteers assist with their time, and others donate vouchers and clothes.

One thing Mr Elmaz will not accept donations in is cash.

‘‘I don’t like dealing with money... I just don’t like it. I do have many people drop in some vouchers, I’m very happy with that. But money changes things,’’ he said.

He has experimented with cash donations in the past, helping families out with such things as schooling needs, but said it became too complicated and he prefers the simple approach of just feeding hungry people.

Mr Elmaz grew up in Macedonia and attributes his charity work in part to his strong Muslim faith. A former prison chaplain, he spent a decade getting to know incarcerated criminals.

Experiences had taught him not to judge people or their circumstances, he said.

‘‘It’s very easy to judge and it’s making a big mistake to judge other people.’’

Leaving his home country at 16, Mr Elmaz spent half a decade in Denmark before coming to Australia.

He later married a local and they settled down in Shepparton and opened Lutfiyes Shish Kebab, named after the couple’s daughter and Mr Elmaz’ mother.

Australia was a ‘‘gold mine’’, according to Mr Elmaz, and he admitted he could not understand how so many people in Shepparton could be going hungry in the midst of one of the world’s most productive food bowls.

He said he was very happy with his own lot in life and helping others made him happier.

He had no plans to become rich, but said he was a very wealthy man as a result of his charity.

‘‘No rich man will take anything with him to the graveyard, maybe a nice tuxedo,’’ Mr Elmaz said.

He said one of the greatest joys in life was when someone he had helped returned, having climbed back on their feet.

‘‘I’ve had people come back years after and finally offer to pay, sometimes they pay more. It’s all good. It’s all good to see them find a way out of that net,’’ he said.