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Interview with Danny Diliberto, CEO of Ladles of Love

Ladles of Love is a non-profit organisation that feeds hundreds and thousands of disadvantaged individuals across Western Cape and Gauteng. They have established 160 soup kitchens and served just under 40 million meals since their inception and they aren’t slowly down anytime soon. Their feats are so incredible and inspiring that we had to learn more and share it for you here.

One of Wander Cape Town’s major goals is to learn and share some of the amazing projects happening in Cape Town and the people involved. So we sat down with Danny Diliberto, CEO of Ladles of Love, to talk about the organisation, it’s mission, where it started, where it is now, and how it came to be more than just a soup kitchen. I don’t want to spoil too much, so please enjoy the read!

What inspired you to start Ladles of Love? And how has it evolved since its inception? 

Danny: So Ladles of Love was founded in 2014. It was founded on the basis of an ancient Sanskrit word, Seva. Spelled S E V A. Seva means giving of yourself, wanting nothing in return. But one needs to understand Seva. Seva is not even the joy that you get out of giving or just doing because you can. And that’s why that word resonated for me.

They teach you in church to give to get back. That’s not Seva. Seva is just giving. And then I had an interaction with a homeless man one day and being in the restaurant industry at the time, I was inspired to start a soup kitchen outside of my restaurant.

The restaurant was in the city with lots of homeless people and I had the kitchen so it was easy. No problem. And so I started my very first soup kitchen in July 2014, outside of my restaurant. And one soup kitchen became four soup kitchens. I just kept going. I knew when I started Ladles that it was a weird spiritual thing or whatever you want to call it. Religious, I don’t know.

I knew it was going to be more than one soup kitchen. It was just a godly gut feeling. And so one kitchen became four soup kitchens. I also found out kids were going to school hungry. That was around about 2015. So I started connecting with schools and helping them. One school became six schools. I was working with other soup kitchens that were feeding the homeless and I was providing them with either cooked food or the supplies to cook their own food so Ladles of Love was in those days doing around 15, 000 meals a month.

Then COVID hit. I remember I was listening to Cyril’s speech, that speech where we knew he was going to put us into lockdown. I remember how they were gradually putting us into lockdown and that night we knew. 

It’s like I knew exactly what I had to do. I call them godly conversations. I knew I had to get to as many people as I could, as quickly as I could. I didn’t know where to get the money from, or how I was going to do it. I just knew I had to do it. And the one thing that Ladles has taught me is when you get those gut feelings, listen to them.

Don’t ask people’s opinions, which you get a lot of for free. And just take the first step. And that’s what I did the very next day, I just took the first step. And Ladles just exploded. We went from doing 15 000 a month to doing 200 000 meals a week in a matter of weeks. Like literally in a matter of weeks. We just started connecting with soup kitchens out in the communities.

And I was just using the model that I was trained to do. Life has a way of teaching us, you know? So I thought let me connect with soup kitchens and help them with food supplies. So I just put the word out. I said to the guys that I was working with, “Listen, if you’ve got a kitchen, and you can collect food, connect with me and I’ll help you”.

And you can imagine how it went crazy. My phone just lit up. People were just calling me, and I was going on references; before I knew it I had 150 soup kitchens, that we were supplying bulk food to and 50 tons of food a week out of our warehouse at CTRCC. That was my peak. 

Justin: And this was during COVID?

Danny: This was during COVID in July. So between March and April, we went from like 100 kg a week to 50 tons a week 

Justin * whispering *: Damn…

How do you manage to expand processes like that so that you can accommodate such a change?

Danny: You know when those godly conversations, whatever you want to call them, those gut feels, you’ve got to really just go with it. You’ve got to trust and focus on today. So whatever comes your way, deal with it and see where it takes you.

There’s no time to make decisions or anything like that. And that’s what I was doing. I was working day by day. We went from our little kitchen in Roeland Street and moved to CTICC. This was about three weeks into COVID. They gave us the entire Square Five, which was like 50 000 square meters.

And that’s where we just exploded because now we had the space. At the time, there was me and my cook that was employed at that time. Then we moved to CTICC and I realised I can’t rely on volunteers. So I just started talking to volunteers and they were out of work because business was shut down.

And I said, can you use a computer? They said yeah, I said, okay, just start collecting data. I just knew I had to collect data. When you perform Seva, I remember the teacher telling me this, two things will happen. You will always be provided for and as you grow, your shoulders will grow to take on the responsibility, and no one can argue that with me. Because Ladles has always been provided for, and this is what was happening.

Someone came to me and said I have a system that monitors food coming in and food going out, I said bring it. And I just needed people to fill the needs that presented themselves. The next thing I was employing 50 people. They were earning starters, they were earning like R7 000 a month or something. But 50 people from 2 people. I had no idea what I was doing, so I was just going day by day, and we had CTICC for 6 weeks.

People were saying to me Danny, what’s going to happen when the six weeks is over? I said I don’t know. I said I don’t know. And then the next thing, we moved into Grand West. Grand West gave us the entire exhibition hall, two and a half thousand square meters. 

Justin: Wow… 

Danny: They couldn’t use the exhibition hall. And they gave us three months at a time, and they just kept renewing because no one was allowed to do exhibitions and so we stayed there for a year and a half, you know. And where, where do you, you’ve now got different positions around the city.

So now you’ve expanded to different locations around the city?

Danny: We moved into this warehouse in Epping and as always, this landed on our lap literally the next day. The minute they gave us notice we had this. The landlord’s been amazing. He knocked like R 40 000 and off the rent. He doesn’t charge us levies. So this is our warehouse and this is where all our soup kitchens come and collect their food. So they come and collect the food and then they take it back. So we’ve been able to organically grow this distribution network into the communities through collection. 

Do you have your own recipes and how do you ensure that all soup kitchens are doing the same kind of quality? 

Danny: They all get the same vegetables like carrots, potatoes and butternuts as well as maize meal, rice, and samp. They also get oats, sugar, and salt, and they’ll take this back and cook with these items. And we’ll regularly check in and see how things are going and if they’re doing the work and that there is no funny business.

We have caught a couple and had to close them down or we just don’t supply them anymore. It’s the 80-20 rule. The majority of them are doing the work. 

And what made you decide on this route for helping people? Why feed people?

You said that you were working in the restaurant industry. How did that play into where you are now? 

Danny: At the time of COVID, food parcel was the big word and so I investigated these parcels and I noticed how bulky they were, how they were filled with junk, and they said this parcel could feed a family of four for a month and looking at this thing I realised there’s no way. There’s no way that this parcel that’s costing hundreds of rands can feed a family of four. And so it wasn’t making sense to me. And then I had a realisation. I said, “Hang on, why don’t I just use what I’m doing right now? Give them the food to cook. As long as they can come and fetch it, they can take it back and cook the meals that they want.

As long as you’re giving them the nutritious food, then they’re going to cook that food, right?

So that’s when I realised this is how we’re going to do it. That’s how we’ve managed to get so much food out into the community because my philosophy was that I’d rather serve a million people one meal a day than ten thousand people three meals a day. That was my philosophy. 

So, I was strict with the guys. I said, “You can’t make food parcels out of this stuff. You’ve got to cook this food. It’s really important”. 

And where do you source your veggies? Are they locally grown? 

Danny: Yeah. They have to be. 

Katja: They have to be? 

Danny: Well, I mean, they, they’re carrots, potatoes, and butternuts. They’re within even the Western Cape. 

Katja: Okay, fantastic. 

Danny: So we work with commercial farmers because of the price. It’s bulk, the tonnage we need. We do work with community farmers as well. Their vegetables are of course a lot more expensive because of the scale.

But their vegetables are just so much more beautiful and so much more real. But that’s our sustainability project where we support the community farmers who are really an important part of the food ecosystem, the food chain.

We have a program called Feed the Soil and it’s about getting the farmers’ vegetables to market. And what we can’t sell, we give to our beneficiaries. 

Katja: Right, fantastic. And where are those markets? Are there specific ones in Cape Town that people can support? 

Danny: The Feed the Soil program has three purposes to it. The first one is to draw your food waste away from landfill because that’s a huge methane contributor. Rotting food waste creates methane. 

So you’ve got places where people can bring their compost?

Danny: Yes, well their food waste.

Katja: Okay. 

Danny: The second is that we take that food waste and convert it into compost, and third we give that compost for free to the community farmers and then we buy their vegetables. So that’s the three purposes of Feed the Soil. 

It’s a bucket system that we created. A person buys and pays R200 for this bucket. You can get a small bucket or a big bucket. I won’t go into the process but once you fill your bucket, you can take it to one of our three depots around Cape Town: One in Sea Point, Constantia, and Vredehoek. 

So those happen once a week when you bring your bucket on that day in your area, and you swap it. And that keeps the system going. We’re collecting over a ton of food waste a week so we have collaborated with Y Waste, who then convert it into compost for us. So for every ton that we give them, they give us 300 kilos of compost. Rich, nutritious compost, which we then give to our farmers. And then at our depots, we sell their vegetables. 

Katja: Amazing. That’s a really good circular system. 

Danny: The next phase of Feed the Soil is to grow the program, get others involved, and get more veg to market.

Katja: So bring them to restaurants?

Danny: Yeah.

Katja: Okay, fantastic! That would be amazing to see. And then they can see specifically on the menu that this supports local vegetable farmers.

Danny: Yes, exactly. Gorgeous George, the hotel in St. George’s Mall, is an upmarket hotel and restaurant, so their food cost can handle that price because it’s about three times more. But you see the ethos behind Gorgeous George, it’s not about the vegetable, it’s about supporting the community farmer. That’s the ethos. And that’s the people we need to look for, that we can connect with, that will buy it.

They still push you a bit on price, but they understand. But the quality is, I can’t even explain to you. When you bite a carrot, your tongue burns from the flavour of the carrot. It’s just, it’s just incredible. And it’s freshly harvested, you know. They harvest it on Monday morning and they deliver it Monday afternoon to us. It doesn’t get fresher than that.

Katja: Amazing. 

So, at this point, how many do you roughly feed in a given month? How many people?

Danny: Currently, we’re at our lowest at the moment. We’ve dropped to about 20 tons of food a week. 

Katja: And why is that? 

Danny: Donations, cost of food. Okay. To give you an idea, rice has just shot up R2 a kilo. That for us is a 25 percent increase. And when you use two tons a week, you’re looking at roughly an extra R5000 a week just on rice. Vegetables fluctuate, but to give you an idea, my vegetables last week jumped up R17 000 rand in one week. So, it’s putting a lot of pressure on how much we can get out.

And donations are not flying in. The challenge with donations is you have to invest more money to get the donations. So now I need to employ a key accounts manager. The salary of that is not small but I need that person to go and connect with corporates now.

We need to get more corporate money. So I need to invest this salary that could go for six months without bringing in one cent. But hopefully, through creating a relationship, the money will start pouring in and we can start increasing our quantity.

So currently we’ve worked out we’re supporting around 35 000 people a day with food and we know the quantity of food that we need to feed a hundred people. So we’ve taken that recipe and entered it into our system and it generates the meal count according to that recipe. We are anywhere, depending on our output, between 150 000 – 200 000 meals a week that we are able to serve with the food that goes out. 

Katja: Okay, fantastic. And so you’re expanding on your Corporate Social Responsibility program to try and get more South African companies involved.

Danny: Yes, so I’ve learned something very important called mindset. And what is mindset? Mindset is what you tell yourself. And how do you change your mindset? You change your mindset by changing the words in your head. So for example, charity. If I tell myself I’m a charity, that’s what I will be.

But if I want to create an impact, I need to see myself as a business. I need to change the mindset to run this organization like a business. I need to employ people. I can’t go to the landlord with a bag of lentils and say this is for the rent.

He’s gonna think I’m smoking something. So you’ve got to have that mindset, that business mindset if you want to create impact. We’ve got to spend money on social media, we’ve got a whole CRM system that costs us money every month. We talk through our emails monthly, I’ve got a communications manager that I need to pay a salary every month.

Hopefully, this gives you an idea of what I need to do to run this organization. Then last year, I remember I was sitting in one of our marketing meetings and I just, I just looked up with my team and I said, you know what guys, we don’t have donors anymore. I’m not going out with a begging bowl.

I said we’re changing our mindset. We are looking for stakeholders. People who want to walk a journey with us. They are our customers, and we treat them like our customers. So, we deal with them professionally, we respond quickly, and we work out ways that we can work together.

That’s really, really important to us. Our goal now is to create long-term relationships. Customers that will stay with us. That has been our guidance and our strategy. It’s great coming up with the idea, but the implementation gets tricky sometimes.

And we’re getting there now. That’s why we are now looking for a key account manager. That’s going to cost us a fortune every month that’s part of the strategy of creating stakeholders.

Katja: That’ll be interesting. I hope it goes really, really well because I do think the whole idea of corporate social responsibility is something to work towards. I can give you some SEO tips later!

Danny: But this mustn’t just be about the tick, about ticking the CSR box.

Katja: No, that is the problem with that kind of thing. Some businesses do  it because it’s tax-deductible and because it’s part of the employee benefits package. I figure as long as it’s a tick for them, but then the employees who are participating in it are engaged then it’s still worth it.

Danny: Yes, and then hopefully with us, it’ll make it more real, come from a real place.

Katja: Wonderful. 

So you’ve got quite a number of projects going on at the moment. What are you most excited about?

Danny: All of our projects. I’m passionate about all of our projects. We are primarily a food relief organisation but I have to say that our Feed the Soil program has sort of become my baby.

I love it because it’s about taking care of Mother Earth because if we don’t, who’s going to take care of her? It’s a little drop but I’ve always said at least do something. It’s about changing the mindset in the community, encouraging people not to throw their food waste away, and teaching people that when you throw food waste away, you’re wasting food.

You really are, even when you’re not going to eat it you are wasting food. So let’s not waste food. Let’s take care of our Mother Earth. So that is definitely my baby, but of course, I’m passionate about getting food out because food is a basic human right, and people shouldn’t have the choice whether they eat or not.

Katja: And proper nourishing food. 

Danny:I mean, imagine you go home and you open your cupboard and there’s no food, and there’s no money in your bank. How scary is that?

Katja: No, it’s terrifying. I can’t imagine really. No, that’s wonderful. And I really love the sound of the Feed the Soil project. I imagine then they don’t use pesticides and herbicides and they’re just doing good.

Danny: Oh, it’s good. And I call it uncertified organic. Can’t get more organic than that. Really, you can’t. 

Katja: Wonderful. Yeah, the whole certification is expensive. 

Danny: Yeah, exactly. 

Katja: So, uncertified organic is good as well. Yeah, that’s really wonderful.

So where would you still like to take the project? Is there any part of the vision that you haven’t achieved yet?

I know you said you were actually kind of going step by step, but it wasn’t all planned out at the beginning. 

Danny: Yeah look, I drive my team mad. I drive business coaches mad because I believe I am a spirit-driven leader and wherever Ladles is today hasn’t been done by me.

It’s been done through me. I know what our why is, and that’s touching people’s lives in a positive way with love, dignity, and respect and as long as we’re doing that, then we are sailing our north star. And you know, do you ever reach north? You don’t. As long as you’re travelling towards our north star, as long as you’re sailing northwards, then you are achieving your why. And that’s how I’ve run Ladles of Love and everything that’s happened is what meant to happen. I believe we have to create impact and touch as many people as we can. 

How big will Ladles get? I don’t know. But we will continue touching people’s lives, as many as we possibly can. 

Katja: That’s wonderful. And it’s really lovely to chat with you and know that all of this is coming from a very good place because I think one gets a little bit cynical about NGOs sometimes and so it’s good to hear. It’s really good to hear and I’m excited to see where it goes!

Danny: Thank you. 

Katja: I mean, it’s huge already. 

Danny: Yeah, we launched Gauteng just over a year ago. They’ve just passed 1. 6 million meals that they’ve served. And now we’re going to launch Northern Cape. Five early childhood development centres we’re going to support.

I was serving the homeless in the city. 

Katja: It’s expanded so much. Are you then working with other NGOs who run part of it? Or do you send someone out there to be the main person running it? Is this in Gauteng? 

Danny: So in Gauteng, we opened another warehouse. It’s a much smaller version. We’ve got 21 beneficiaries there that we support. 21 soup kitchens. We’re hoping to launch Feed the Soil there as well. In the Northern Cape, I’ve connected with one of our beneficiaries and I’ve connected with a supplier. We will give the order to the supplier every week and they will deliver it. He’s got a place where they can deliver it. He will then break it up and distribute it to the five ECDs and I will pay the supplier.

Katja: Fantastic, alright. 

Who or what inspired Cake Day?

Justin, that was one that you and Küra were curious to know. 

Justin: Yeah, I’ve done a few volunteering days at the Hope Exchange. And I think once a week they do a cake day where they bake a cake and then serve that with the meals and so we were just curious because we heard it also from the people who were coming to collect meals. They were like, “Ah, yes! Cake Day!” And they all got stoked about it. 

Danny: Honestly, I don’t know what inspired it because it wasn’t me. It was, it was my volunteers there. I think when it really started was when we got a donation. I think it was apples, like a huge donation and I said to the guys, “What are we going to do with all these apples? They’re going to go off.” I think they decided to cook them and then freeze them and we just thought why don’t we just make cake with it.

They just seem to enjoy cooking cake now, and it’s delicious every time I go, I’m stealing the cake. 

Justin: *Starting to salivate* It’s really good. 

Danny: Yeah. Ladles of love, when I started the soup kitchen, it was about serving healthy, nutritious, tasty, well-prepared food. Food that I’m going to serve my mother. I don’t care that you’re homeless. It doesn’t make you lower than me. You’re still a human being. So at the end of the day, you still deserve to eat a good bowl of food. And if my mother ain’t gonna eat it, you ain’t gonna eat it.

And then you bring in Didem, who’s my like head volunteer there. And she’s Turkish. Bring in a Mediterranean. She loves food. I will send cucumbers and lettuce and you’ll see the dish that they create, a pasta sauce with cucumber in it. And you taste it and you go, and she says, “I don’t know what I was doing, I just threw everything in and spiced it.” And you taste it and you go, “Wow, this is frickin nice.”

That’s what happens at the Dignity Kitchen, and that’s why we’ve called it Dignity Kitchen. 

Katja: I really love that because when he first came back from his first volunteering, Justin said the food looked really good. I wanted some of that food. And that was really great to hear. Because I’ve done a food kitchen before and it was something I would never eat. And so it’s really cool to see someone doing it the way I would want it to be. 

Danny: And I’m strict with my guy and I taste every time I’m there. And a couple of times I say to Paul “Taste this.” And he tasted it and he goes… So is it nice? And he goes, Hmm. I said, so why are you cooking it like this? And so he learned very quickly that he can’t cook crap. 

Justin: Maybe a bit of a hard question, but if it does happen that the meal is subpar? Something that you wouldn’t wanna serve your mother. What would happen?

Danny: In our kitchen it would, it would only really be the flavour. The food is still fresh and it’s still nutritious. We’ll try and fix it up as much as we can if we can, but if it’s, if it’s too late, there’s not much you can do. You can’t not feed them much. You can’t throw it away, I mean I can throw it away, but…

Last question, how can individuals and businesses get involved and support the mission?

Danny: Website. Ladlesoflove.org.za.  Go on there. Of course, money is always first. Like I said, I can’t go to the landlord with lentils and say “here, this is for the rent”. But sponsoring food and volunteering too. I realised this in the beginning when I was doing volunteering. I saw how people, strangers, were coming together in our soup kitchen and all of a sudden there was no gender, there was no religion, there was no colour. It was just human beings. 

I just saw strangers come together and they’re smiling and they’re laughing. You’re working as a team and you’re just giving a bowl of food and I said “Wow this is like feeding the souls of our volunteers as well!” So I realised I needed to make volunteering as easy as possible as well and that’s been the essence. So we really try hard to create volunteering opportunities.

This week we launched our new volunteer calendar. Register as a volunteer on our website and you’ll get our weekly newsletter which keeps you updated because we’ve got campaigns going which often need volunteers. On Mandela Day we had 6, 000 volunteers.

Katja: That’s the one that you started with, Justin. 

Justin: Yeah, that was the first one I did and we were cutting squares of material for the educational bean bags. And I think I cut somewhere close to maybe 500 squares or something like that. I decided to fold the material as many times as possible so I could make one cut and one cut and then I have a whole square.

Danny (finishing an earlier thought):

So go onto the website LadlesOfLove.org.za. You can donate there. You can sign up for our newsletter, and you can volunteer. 

I saw you had an R250 monthly donation. That’s a good starting point. 

Danny: Recurring donations are so good. 

Katja: They’re always the best.

Danny: When you know you’ve got that money coming in every month, it’s like, okay.

Katja: Wonderful. Alright, I think that’s it. 

Danny: Cool. 

Katja: Thanks so much, Danny. I really appreciate it. 

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