It sits shoulder to shoulder with some of Sydney's trendiest cafes and fine dining restaurants, but once a month on market day it's the Devonshire tea at the humble neighbourhood centre that draws the hungry crowd.
At just $6 for a pair of freshly baked scones served with jam, whipped cream and a pot of tea, it might just be the cheapest Devonshire tea in Sydney.
“The food is all made on the premises and served fresh on the day,” says Gillian Elliott, manager at Surry Hills Neighbourhood Centre.
Other goodies, also available for $6, include gluten-free flourless orange and almond cake and, in winter, a “nice, warming soup”. A zucchini and potato frittata and side salad costs $8.
The Devonshire Tea Community Cafe is just one of a number of initiatives using food to reach out to people, strengthen community ties and provide opportunities for the disadvantaged or less wealthy. Run with the help of volunteers and grant money, all these initiatives are not-for-profit, which means any money earned is put straight back into keeping the project running.
“The best thing about our cafe is that it's affordable. We love families to come in with their children,” Elliot says.
Funded by the Surry Hills Neighbourhood Centre with a matching grant from City of Sydney, Elliot has been running the Devonshire Tea Community Cafe with chef Rosie Browne and a team of about 10 volunteers since October 2011.
One such volunteer is Stephen Lunny, who has been volunteering since the cafe first opened. With 25 years' industry experience, the student and part-time hospitality worker could easily choose to be elsewhere on market day. Instead he serves tables and trains other volunteers.
“I was looking for something to do in the community and I like to do something local – it's nice to give back. And if you put hospitality in a community context, it makes the customer nicer,” he says, laughing.
Breaking down barriers, building up skills
Food has also become central to the community of asylum seekers and refugees at Carramar's House of Welcome, which in January began a Welcome Feast program centred on cooking and sharing food and recipes.
“It came about because I was preparing the food for the programs every month and they were never really that popular – apparently cold pizza doesn't do it for everyone,” says programs and development co-ordinator Jo Hill.
“Then one day, one lady tapped me on the arm and said, 'If you ever want me to bring anything...'. And so they started bringing all these amazing biriyanis and Bengali noodle dishes and traditional Egyptian bechamel pasta dishes.”
Now Carramar's runs a program of cooking classes and weekly lunches in which asylum seekers and refugees take the lead role in teaching other newcomers and volunteers how to prepare and cook food from their home country.
The lunch program is funded via a grant from Paul Newman's organisation, Newman's Own Foundation, and the cooking classes in partnership with the North Sydney Community Centre.
“There's an increasing number of asylum seekers living in the community but many of them are isolated because they're not allowed to work,” Hill says.
“A lot of them are young, single guys who might not know anybody, so it's a great way for them to get to know people, build language and learn other practical skills.”
Shabnam Promela Imran, who fled persecution in Pakistan three years ago, has participated in numerous Welcome Feasts and says the program has not only helped her make friends – it has also expanded her culinary horizons.
“Cooking is my favourite activity… I love to give food to other people. It makes me very happy,” she says.
“I also learn to cook Italian food and Australian food. At first my son and I say 'oh no, we can't eat this food,' but now we are happy to eat it,” she says.
Also assisting asylum seekers and refugees is the Bread & Butter project by bakers Paul Allam and David McGuiness from the hugely successful Bourke Street Bakery in Surry Hills.
The social enterprise project is offering paid 12-month traineeships in the art of wholesale baking to refugees and asylum seekers.
“The idea started when I got invited to go to the Thai-Burma border to teach some refugee women in an orphanage how to bake,” says Bourke Street Bakery's Paul Allam.
The Marrickville facility, which will sell its first loaves of bread at The Sydney Morning Herald Grower's Market this Saturday (April 6), has seed funding from a variety of organisations, including the federal government.
“It's not about sending bakers into the best bakeries in town. It's about people getting jobs,” Allam says.
“We don't see ourselves as successful unless we put our trainees into permanent employment after 12 months.”
The power of social enterprise
The Bread & Butter Project is unusual among social enterprises, which typically begin life in the social or community sector rather than evolving from a commercial business. Numerous social enterprises running as community cafes and kitchens have sprouted in Sydney in recent years, including Common Groundz in Lalor Park, ARTyCaf at Narellan Library and Mars Hill Cafe in Parramatta.
Peppertree Cafe, operated through Bankstown Multicultural Youth Service, began life in 2010 with a grant from the federal government Jobs Fund program. It offers students and disadvantaged local youths work and training opportunities to prepare them for a career in food and hospitality.
“We help to support them through any barriers – mental health, substance abuse, truancy, family breakdown, homelessness, whatever it may be – while we get them back in a structured system of up-skilling, training and work experience,” says assistant manager Sarkis Achmar.
“At the end they come out with a really solid foundation of knowledge of the work environment.”
Many of these initiatives become deeply embedded in the community. One example is Cornucopia Cafe in Gladesville, which has been offering employment and support to people with mental illness since it opened 16 years ago.
In 2010, Cornucopia found itself the target of plans under the former state government to sell the cafe and restrict employees – some of whom had been there for years – to a three-month stint at the cafe. The plans were abandoned in 2011 at the behest of the minister, following an emotional campaign by local residents and employees.
Today the cafe and nursery employs around 40 people.
“It's an inclusive thing. People feel that they're a worker rather than a pensioner,” says Cornucopia business manager Jeff Craig.
“It gives them regular social contact, it gives them supplementary income and generally improves their self-esteem.”
Cornucopia chef Patrick Beinke has worked at the cafe for the past 10 years and says he's not going anywhere any time soon.
“I got involved when I was in the rehab unit at Macquarie Hospital in Ryde and I've been here since. I don't think they could get me away from here,” says the 30-year-old.
“It's made a huge impact on me. You talk to the customers, you meet other people who have made it though. It gives people direction that really had none.”
Serving up hope
But perhaps the longest-running community-based restaurant in Sydney is the 23-year-old Loaves and Fishes restaurant in Ashfield, where meals are free.
Founded by Reverend Bill Crews of the Exodus Foundation, the church restaurant in Ashfield is open seven days a week and serves around 1000 meals a day to Sydney's poor, lost and needy.
“If there was one word to describe the people who come here, it's 'desperate',” Reverend Crews says.
“I go in there and sit and eat as often as I can. It keeps you oriented.”
Started with a donation from entrepreneur John Singleton, the restaurant operates with four paid staff and some 200 volunteers.
“It's like a big family, really. Our longest-serving volunteers have been here since, oh, I don't know, 1993. Maybe even since we opened in 1989,” Reverend Crews says.
The Loaves and Fishes has seen it all – from the 93-year-old homeless woman and her 65-year-old homeless daughter who fought like cats and dogs, to the illiterate man who lived in a cave and wanted to donate his $15,000 inheritance to the Exodus Foundation.
“People come and they go. That's how it goes,” Reverend Crews says.
“A lot of people, particularly young people, will come back and say, 'I used to eat here every day 10 years ago and now I've turned my life around.' So when people stop coming, we don't always know why but we hope it's a good thing.”