It was January when I last met Raph Mondale serving lentil, chick pea and yam stew at his store opposite the O2 Apollo in Ardwick. His ARMR store is part café, part health food shop, workspace and art gallery. Back then I was taken by his commitment to support the community ahead of making a profit.
Today – four months into lockdown – he’s in the kitchen at nearby Brunswick Church. There’s fresh vegetables being chopped and huge pans being stirred as he and his team prepare free meals for those in need.
I ask him what’s happened in the meantime. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I saw there was a need for older people in particular to have access to culturally appropriate food,” he tells me. “Those shielding were receiving regular food parcels but it wasn’t food they were used to. I thought we could help fill the gap.”
As well as Raph, today in the kitchen there’s his mum, Joanne; staff member Dashuntae and volunteers Meekai and Levi. “But how did you all end up here?” I ask.
Raph thinks for a second: “Lisa!” he laughs. “Yes, it was Lisa. She knows everyone’s needs and puts people together, doesn’t she? She’s like a matchmaker.”
Lisa Brown is Forever Manchester’s Community Builder for Ardwick and since the end of last year she’s been doing just that: mapping the area’s community assets and making connections.
“She introduced us to Brunswick Church and pretty quickly we were in here making meals. Now, for three days a week, we cater for the Church’s walk-in clientele each lunchtime as well as preparing hot meals that we later deliver. Every day we’re feeding between 30 and 50 people.”
“So what’s on the menu today?”
“We’re making a pumpkin and callaloo dish – that’s become a bit of a favourite – and then we’ve got a spinach and potato dahl, red and yellow lentils finished with coriander. There’s plantain and some steamed veg; and Levi is making jollof rice.”
My mouth’s watering. “That’s amazing. It’s like restaurant-quality food.”
“Yes, I suppose we could provide something basic like rice and beans but, I don’t think just because people can’t afford it, they should get a lesser product. So whatever we make here, we also serve in the shop. We want to treat everyone the same whether they’re paying for it or not.”
“You must have a lot of grateful customers,” I suggest.
“There is one guy,” Raph says, “who has been through a bad patch and his health has taken a turn for the worse. He stands by his door each evening waiting for us to deliver his meal. He’s always so appreciative. You know it means so much. It’s not just the nutritious meal, it’s the idea that someone cares.
“He’s got to know our names and we have a bit of a chat. Just having that interaction with that one person has made it all worthwhile… that’s all I can ask for.”
Raph tells me he’d intended to spend just a few weeks making meals but, by the time he finishes at the end of August, he and his team will have been at it for three months. “No, it’s not as I’d envisioned, but I’m glad we’ve done it.
“It might sound selfish but Covid has presented me with more opportunities than difficulties. I always believe that creativity beats adversity. If you’re creative in adverse times, then you will succeed.”
“And what comes next?”
“Hopefully we’ll get back to some sort of normality soon and we’ll look at other ways to support the community.”
Raph’s ARMR Store is at:
2 Polygon Street, Ardwick, M13 9SG. 0161 273 2335