When Tanya Awadallah was growing up, she loved eating Vegemite on Lebanese bread.
The snack was a reflection of her family's Middle Eastern and Australian heritage. While it doesn't yet appear at Wilson, the for-purpose cafe she runs in Surry Hills, a brilliant $5 tahini toast does.
So what inspired this menu item? "Tahini's better than hummus. Hummus is so overrated," says Awadallah with a laugh."The tahini toast is something I'll eat at home."
It's easy to make. Tahini dip is spread on Infinity Bakery sourdough, sprinkled with a za'atar and dukkah mix, and drizzled with olive oil.
But there's something about how Awadallah does it that makes it so memorable to eat. Her colleague Clare Peterson tried to replicate it at home and admits it just wasn't the same.
Peterson and Awadallah both work at MHN Design Union, an award-winning architecture studio that shares the same building as Wilson. They moved in a year ago from Hutchison Street, a few blocks away.
"We found this building because we needed a bigger space, and we thought this garage was too cool just to be a garage," says Awadallah, a practice manager at the firm.
MHN Design Union ran a competition for ideas on how to transform the garage (which once was Wilson's Steam Laundry in the 19th century, hence the name). Awadallah anonymously entered her design concept – a space to become a cafe that donates profits to good causes and runs exhibitions by upcoming artists.
To help out, she enlisted Joaquín Herrera, who previously ran Cafe Con Leche near the old Hutchinson Street office. "Every morning I used to get coffee from him. And then when he left, we kept in touch."
Herrera originally came to Sydney from Colombia in 2000 to see the Olympics. His career in hospitality seems like a given, as his family ran a restaurant for more than four decades. He also has an impressive way of making people feel welcome and remembering how they like their caffeine fix.
"We thought this garage was too cool just to be a garage."
Peterson says, "He's the ultimate barista. I was coming down the laneway with my son and I could hear him laughing. It just started my day before I even got here.
"He knows everyone's orders. Even after Christmas, when we'd been shut for two weeks, this lady came in with a pram and he said, 'cappuccino?'"
Originally, Wilson was meant to be a small laneway pit stop for people to pick up flat whites and other well-caffeinated Colombian brews.
"When I first opened, I thought it would be coffee only – I thought the bench would be at the door and people wouldn't even come in," says Awadallah.
But when the council asked them to seat people inside (instead of lingering on the footpath), they started asking for food, and that's when Awadallah started offering tahini toast and other treats, like salads from Two Good, a social enterprise that's provided more than 157,000 meals to women in domestic violence refuges.
Supporting the right cause is, of course, the driving force behind Wilson – from recycled interiors (featuring shelves fashioned from old steel offcuts that their architect mates had saved) to charities.
The idea is that proceeds from the cafe will go to a different charity every quarter, and there'll be shows by upcoming artists or under-represented talent that are timed around such announcements.
The team started by directing Wilson's profits to Oxfam because of the admirable work it does with lifting people out of poverty and campaigning for appropriate wages for women working in factories overseas.
When the team returned to the office after the Christmas break, they were shocked by the scale and devastation of this summer's bushfire season and wanted to raise money for the NSW Rural Fire Service and Red Cross.
Awadallah admits this aspect of it has been a "serious learning curve", because as much as we'd like to believe "charities are all wonderful and perfect", sometimes they aren't.
"We committed to helping Red Cross and of course, they're in the papers," she says, referring to claims that only a portion of the organisation's bushfire relief fund will go to people affected by the tragedy.
They'll still keep backing admirable causes, of course, but they will have a different focus.
"What we've decided is that we feel most strongly about kids and local things. If we keep that as a consistent theme, we'll be alright," she says.
There are ways that Wilson encourages guests to directly contribute, too: there's an iPad station for direct donations and as part of the bushfire relief effort, the cafe staged a drop-off point for people to contribute tinned food, tea and toiletries to Foodbank.
But first Awadallah and Peterson clarified that Foodbank could indeed distribute food items to people in need amid concerns that food donations could not be made to bushfire-affected victims.
"I rang Foodbank and said, 'is this accurate?'. They do stuff all year, they've been doing deliveries to drought-stricken farmers all year, every year, for quite some time," says Peterson.
"They said, 'no, that's not really helpful to say that, because we're set up to take the deliveries. We've got the trucks, we've got the warehouses, so please anything you can collect, we can have and it will definitely get to people in need'."
Wilson started with an empty table that gradually filled with rice, tinned beans, canned vegetables, long-life milk and more goods as cafe-goers dropped off bags of groceries.
"For winter, we want to have a drop-off for clothing and coats and blankets," she adds.
Awadallah somehow juggles her work upstairs at MHN Design Union with her new role making meals downstairs at Wilson.
"It just means I don't go out for lunch anymore, I have my lunch here doing this – but I love it," she says.
She hopes to replicate the model of Wilson: a small cafe made of recycled parts that only needs one or two people to run, supports charities and has a community-driven program of exhibitions and other events.
"If other architects want to do something like this, we would help them set up Wilson's brothers and sisters," she says, adding that she'd be happy to share the lessons she's learnt.
"It would be cool to see other Wilsons pop up."
35 Richards Lane, Surry Hills NSW
Mon to Fri 7.30 am – 1pm
Sat 7.30am – 1pm (when Surry Hills Markets are open, on the first Saturday of each month)
This recipe makes a big batch and it keeps very well for weeks in an airtight container – that’s if it lasts that long!