Nfld. & Labrador

Can't pay? It's OK: St. John's restaurant feeds hungry for free

A sign outside Big Bite Pita in Churchill Square in St. John'sreads, “Free meal for the homeless everyday,” and it’s a promise owners of the restaurant keep.  

Big Bite Pita provides free meals to people in need for an hour a day, 7 days a week

Emad Elawwad is co-owner of Big Bite Pita, a year-old Middle Eastern restaurant in St. John's that offers free food to the hungry one hour daily. Elawwad says the offer started after a man walked into the shop with $3 and asked him what he could buy for that amount. 'I told him to keep the money and get what you want.' (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Every day at 3 p.m., Peter Boland sits at a table in Big Bite Pita in Churchill Square in St. John's, waiting for his meal.

Sometimes he orders a poutine, other times a wrap. But no matter what he chooses off the menu, he never has to pay.

An inconspicuous black-and-white poster went up outside the restaurant about three months ago, and reads, "Free meal for the homeless everyday," from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., and it's a promise owners of the small restaurant have kept. 

"I seen a Facebook ad and thought it was absolutely incredible what they are doing for low income in the city," said Boland, 27, who grew up in the Newfoundland and Labrador's foster-care system. 

"When all the pain in the world, the real depression hits, it's like a family here. It's really a community that you don't see anymore."

Peter Boland, 27, who eats at Big Bite Pita during the hour-long free food period, says he grew up in the province's foster-care system and is involved with groups such as The Gathering Place, Stella's Circle and Choices for Youth. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Boland, who frequents Stella's Circle and the Gathering Place for meals and support, said the restaurant provides a different kind of atmosphere for those looking for help. 

"People who have anxiety, they can't attend places like that. It's completely different here," he said. "Incredible, incredible people."

When you are in good condition, you have to help other people too.- Alaa Nattouf

He isn't the only one at Big Bite Pita who knows what it's like to be hungry. Restaurant manager Alaa Nattouf has also fallen on hard times, and is eager to help with a meal on the house.

"Sometimes I had no money to buy bread for my children," said Nattouf, who moved from Syria to St. John's as a refugee three years ago .

Alaa Nattouf, the manager at Big Bite Pita, says the gesture of kindness is just part of the Syrian culture. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

"I couldn't say to anybody that I need money to buy bread for my children."

Sign helps ease embarrassment

The policy at Big Bite Pita has always been to feed customers even if they can't pay, but the embarrassment Nattouf once felt asking for help is the reason the sign went up. 

"They didn't ask us to put [the sign] on," she said. "When they see the poster, they are fine."

The sign outside Big Bite Pita in Churchill Square. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Emad Elawwad, co-owner of the Middle Eastern restaurant, said this all started when a man walked into the shop with $3 and asked Elawwad what he could buy for that price.

"I told him to keep the money and get what you want," said Elawwad, while slicing meat off a vertical spit. 

"I make sure he is full."

Elawwad has lived in St. John's for 10 years, settling here from Egypt. To keep food on the table, he has worked different jobs in the region, but said he is happiest running his restaurant. 

Boland, left, tells Elawwad how good the poutine is at the restaurant. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Elawwad said the number of people coming into the restaurant for the free offer varies daily. Sometimes they see up to eight guests, sometimes none. 

"I feel that I am happy. It's something that is small but it helps a lot for someone."

Paying customers now make donations

His act of generosity is also encouraging others to pass it along.

Elawwad said paying customers are donating money to purchase meals for those in a more vulnerable situation. 

"I am so happy when I saw this. Helping me, help the hungry."

The restaurant sells traditional Middle Eastern cuisine. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

The owners are opening another restaurant in Mount Pearl at the end of the month, where the same sign will be posted outside.

Nattouf, who has worked at the restaurant since it opened more than a year ago, said the gesture of kindness is just part of their culture.

"This is just how we were raised. It's from our community, from our families," she said. 

"When you are in good condition, you have to help other people too."

Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Meg Roberts is a video journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in St. John's. Email her at meg.roberts@cbc.ca.

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