Donna Hay meets Willy Wonka is how the bosses at Marmalade describe its style. Hay is the Australian chef and author who makes simple, healthy recipes, and combines them with beautiful photography. Willy Wonka, despite Tim Burton’s attempts to suggest otherwise, is a chocolate-loving sugar freak.

“That Australian influence is really important. Obviously Hay, but Martha Stewart too,” explains Louise Carter, one half of the duo who run the café in Eastern Road, Brighton.

“I’ve just made some salads and, when you look at them, you’re instantly drawn to them. “It’s not overcomplicated, not over-fussy – they just look beautiful and colourful. We also use some unusual ingredients which perhaps people aren’t used to seeing with each other.”

Carter’s eye for design extends to the calligraphy on the menus, windows and business cards.

Keen food-lovers might recognise her work from a bigger project she spent eight years doing retail design, displays and events for. Carter worked for Lewes and Brighton food institution Bill’s (now a nationwide chain with 22 branches) with Tania Webb, who is the owner at Marmalade. Webb co-founded Bill’s with her brother-in-law, Bill Collison.

“Neither Lou or I wanted to travel the country working with Bill’s,” explains Webb, who lives around the corner from Marmalade and says she intends to boost its reputation as a community hub. “We both have kids and this is a lifestyle thing for us. Bill, Lou and I are all real foodies. So it isn’t about the fact we have copied or are trying to copy Bills – this is what our lives are like. We love food. We cook like this at home.” Webb has always wanted to open a little coffee shop which also does food. She’s always worked in the food business and used to do brand consultancy in Hong Kong and later in London. Her company was called Marmalade. “I just love the word!” she jokes.

It was a natural fit when she made a lifetime’s ambition a reality. “When I lived in London there was this café I used to go to and there was a woman who used to cook every morning. “It was tiny, and I always used to say that one day I wanted my own little café and that I’d like to do the cooking myself. “I’d like to have a white shirt, white apron, and to be making people breakfast. No stress, nothing else.”

Webb is in the white shirt when I visit. Carter is in the white apron. The old friends like to get their hands dirty in the kitchen. They often bring in dishes they’ve baked in their kitchens at home. Recipes from newspapers are pinned on the wall behind the Marmalade counter for inspiration. The mix for Marmalade’s creamy scrambled eggs is written in marker pen on the tiles above the hobs. It’s certainly a relaxed affair. Probably what the food industry would call a “soft launch”. The renovations will not be finished before August. Even with unplastered walls and a mixed paint job, the place is full of character, and customers. “We’re already doing three times what it was doing before under the old owners,” adds Webb, whose partner Mark Barnes, director of Catering Projects, is the man in charge of doing the refit.

Webb wants to paint the outside and the interior blue. The striking china tiles discovered hidden beneath layers of paint and plaster will remain exposed. The mezzanine floor will be opened up. The counter might be moved back to make more room for takeaway produce. The owners are well aware that the Royal Sussex County Hospital is being renovated and the staff will be housed around the corner temporarily. Webb, however, jokes, “We’re more about quality than making money, which is where we always go wrong.”

In reality, history tells us otherwise. “Because Mark and I have a reputation, all these people are saying, ‘You’ve done something, we must come to have a look’,” Webb says as we walk past the open-plan kitchen and into one of the cubby holes. “I design a lot of restaurants, put together concepts, and here it is not even plastered, half-finished. Normally Mark and I go in and strip a place out and make it look amazing. “Here, we thought we’d get to know it before we close. But now it’s up and running it’s fine. People come in and they like it. It makes me laugh.

“It’s never going to be a huge, dynamic restaurant. It’s a little coffee shop that does a little bit of food.

“We get real pleasure out of people saying, ‘I really liked that’, even if it is just a quiche and salad or a sandwich, pie or tart.

“We make it all in the morning then it sells out.”

  • Marmalade, Eastern Road, Brighton, 01273 606138. Open 8am to 6pm, Monday to Saturday, and 9am to 5pm on Sundays.