AMID the hot blur of slinging and delivering burgers and keeping his business afloat, Newy Burger Co boss Ben Neil recently began serving free, healthful pumpkin soup as a takeaway meal for those in need.
Neil, 41, co-owner of the popular burger trading since 2014, is no stranger to giving soup gratis.
Most days, he usually delivers 20 litres of it to Soul Cafe to feed the city's homeless.
But when COVID-19 closed down the charity's dining room, he started making up to 40-litres a day at Newy Burger Co's Newcastle West base.
When one of his staff asked him what to write in black marker on the takeaway soup pack for two, complete with bread rolls, his response was simple: "We're all in this."
An Instagram picture of the soup pack ricocheted around Newcastle's hospitality and burger-loving community, with one comment saying the sentiment was the "heart and soul" of the city.
Fuelled by a steady diet of coffee, chocolate and bakery goods, Neil admits he is a little short on patience right now.
His burger joint has, like so many other Newcastle businesses, weathered many a retail storm over the past few years between construction, Supercars and transport issues.
But he is trying to live by the words "kindness in the madness", encouraging everyone he crosses paths with to help where they can or simply have empathy.
"Someone got soup the other day, she was a nurse in a pharmacy and this customer had berated her because [the pharmacy] didn't have ventonlin puffer and the nurse had broken down in tears," Neil says.
"Be the person that does something for someone else, rather than yelling at someone that has no control over a situation.
"I know it's hard but there are people worse out there than me.
"Give a bit of empathy and kindness, it doesn't have to be cash you give, maybe it can be understanding."
Since opening Newy Burger Co, which initially traded out of the Crown and Anchor pub, then the Cambridge Hotel, before settling into Newcastle West, Neil and his small team have become known for their efforts to support families in need, roping the wider community in to donate in kind.
More recently, Neil has started Kindness Boxes for the needy, calling on his network of hospitality and broader contacts to either donate something for the box or sponsor the cost of pulling one together.
He estimates that his staff have delivered about 50 Kindness Boxes and 350 soup packs in the past fortnight or so.
That kindness has been repaid by loyal customers, for exampe, those involved with Charlie's Run 4 Kids, a local group with supporters who run from Seal Rocks to Dudley each year and raises vast sums for children with cancer.
"We have always done our bit to help them and I see one of those people coming in and supporting our business all the time - and some have lost their jobs or aren't working," Neil says.
"They are not asking for free burger, but that genuine commitment to community is being repaid."
Then there are his hospitality contacts who, as their businesses have folded, have shut their doors and given him their leftover stock so he can utilise it for the greater good.
"Some people have been stuffing money into donation boxes and I don't want to take them, I am asking if they are trading, but people are still donating when their business has closed, and that has always been Newcastle for me."
Before coronavirus led him to have to resort to a takeaway trade thanks to the government's lockdown, Neil says his business was, like many others in the city, trading as best they could after a difficult period.
"It was tough before this particularly in Hunter Street - the light rail has't delivered the revitalisation it was supposed to," he says.
"We were going ok but probably like many who were looking to trade through tougher periods, this is next level."
For the past two years at least, Newy Burger Co has upped the ante with takeaways and pop-ups - running a food truck and catering for weddings - and even shifted to Honeysuckle when the light rail was being built in order to simply stay viable.
"We can't afford to sit here and just trade ok, it was, "Let's take the burgers to the people and the truck to the people', and that was off-setting what we weren't making," he says.
Even so, times are tough, as his son Xavier noted when he accompanied his father to drop some soup at Soul Cafe then looked out the window at the queue of people at Centrelink in King Street.
"Xav said to me, 'Why are all those people lined up and I had to explain to him," says Neil.
That moment, alongside discussions he had had the previous night with suppliers asking him to balance up because they were concerned they were heading south, prompted Neil to sell soup from his own doors.
"Soul Cafe couldn't open as usual so we just just put it out there that it was customers in isolation or just anyone, really," Neil says.
Neil appeals to any business in a position to help to do so in relation to the Kindness Boxes - by either donating food or sponsoring the contents - and is grateful to all those who have so far.
He's also grateful to his 15 staff, who he says have stepped up and worked as needed or given their shifts to others more in need to help keep the operation going.
"They are rolling with the punches, I have my accounts and payment lady out doing deliveries and then manning the headquarters for our Kindness Boxes, everyone has been really good at following the evolution of what we do to get by."
For now, Neil is hanging on.
"It costs more to do all takeaway and do deliveries - we use our own staff to do that - and we are trying to do as best we can, we are just in limbo," Neil says.
Though spare time is something he doesn't have, he took a Monday off this week to go surfing with his son.
"I have not seen him much, so that was the best reset for me, to be able to get him in the water."
Together, not Alone is a partnership between Out of the Square, the Newcastle Herald and the Greater Bank. Its aim is to inspire some positivity in these difficult times and will feature a series of stories that explore kindness, innovation, creativity, celebration and mindfulness among businesses and the community.
Contact Penelope Green: email@example.com
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