James Habla dreamt of opening a cafe for a long time, but he wanted to do it within his community. So for years he waited patiently for a space on Abbotsford’s stretch of Johnston Street to become available.
“A lot of that came from growing up in the Caribbean, where there’s one street in the town where you knew every face and where they came from,” he says. “Abbotsford and lower Johnston is the best example of that in Melbourne – it’s this little island we’re on, with a river, where everyone lives and breathes the suburb.”
Habla has been in the food industry for many years across wholesaling, gastro-science and the food-waste sector. In other words, he’s incredibly passionate about produce, and wanted to share his knowledge about who’s growing what and where, and how it makes it to consumers. Now that he’s found his Johnston Street patch, he’s finally doing that with Gilbees.
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At Gilbees, takeaway coffees and pastries are churned out at the shopfront while cosy tables, warmed by the fire on colder days, make up the dining room. Like a proud dad of the community, Habla displays works from emerging artists – which are all for sale – throughout the spruced-up 1910s Victorian building. Out the back, the garden is a spacious oasis for refreshing al fresco moments on sunny days, and it was fitted out by Habla and his dad with accessibility in mind. Orange and earthy accents take cues from the bark and sap of the trees near Lake Elizabeth in the Otways.
For now, Gilbees is around for specialty sandwiches and brunch classics – but almost everyone’s there for the King Katsu Sandwich: crunchy crumbed, vegan buttermilk-marinated king oyster mushrooms served with a citrus and herb slaw with a generous amount of tonkatsu plum sauce.
Lorena Corzo (ex-Napier Quarter and Sig Enzo), who’s known for her fiery Sicilian Smokeout pop-ups, is taking over the kitchen on weekends until October. She’ll be serving up a range of Sicilian-style brunches. In future, Gilbees plans to get into the night-game too, with dinner services, chef series pop-ups and community events.
“Community has the greatest effect on people’s happiness,” says Habla.
It’s unsurprising that Gilbees already has plenty of regulars – there’s a palpable air of relaxation and ease when you enter, and you’re invited to come solely as you are.