Whenever a shop or business reaches its 50-year anniversary milestone, the great sense of achievement and subsequent accolades that follow are well deserved as it is no small feat.
In such cases, the family owners who took a chance on the business undoubtedly worked extremely hard to provide the best product and service that they nurtured and witnessed grow from strength to strength over the years.
This year, the Xenos family of Xenos Restaurant at Crows Nest, Sydney, reached this great milestone and it is an opportune moment to reflect upon what the longevity of any business truly means and the value that history can add to an establishment.
In its fifty years of operation, the Xenos family has witnessed the changes in people’s tastes and ways of dining, as the initial Espresso Milk Bar on Burlington Street was renovated into the Xenos Coffee Lounge in the 1980s and finally transformed into the first Greek restaurant, with the same name, in the lower North Shore in 1993. More importantly, these changes – and the intuition to adapt to them – reflect the eventual acceptance of Greek cuisine by the Australian mainstream society.
Two generations of post-WW2 Greek migrants grabbed their opportunity of escaping the factory fodder and labour-intensive jobs to buy their own business – a milk bar. After a series of jobs, from GMH to Quality Earth Produce, bus conductor Panagiotis Xenos noticed the venue on his bus route through Burlington Street, Crows Nest. The For Lease sign outside the Espresso Milk Bar caught his attention. With his wife, Katerina (nee Tsavari), from Simi, this milk bar meant independence and taking charge of their destiny. It was their opportunity to provide a better life for their children. As Panagiotis recounts, “In 1969, the Espresso Milk Bar was narrow and small – with 28 seats. It had a sandwich bar and an espresso coffee machine. We had a small grill at the rear of the shop – for hot food such as hamburgers and rissoles. What it lacked in size, it made up for in customers – it was very busy.”
With the milk bar’s renovation in the late 1970s came the rebranding of the business as it was renamed, Xenos, which many customers initially found quite alien so Panagiotis would just explain it was the family surname. With time, people got used to it.
“People should never feel embarrassed by their name,” Panagiotis says. “We were very hard working people and people have been happy with our menus and service so they have gotten used to our name over time!”
With the decline of milk bars in the 1980s, Panagiotis and Katerina intuitively read people’s changing tastes and eating habits and transformed the milk bar into a coffee lounge. With the milk bar, customers wanted a quick, easy feed while the coffee lounge’s menus became more complex with the introduction of foods such as casseroles.
It was in 1993 that the Xenos family took the great leap forward and opened the Xenos Greek Restaurant. “The idea of establishing a Greek restaurant seemed natural; there is no point in hiding who we are – we should celebrate it. At the time, Crows Nest was a very Australian suburb but Sydney’s North Shore needed a Greek restaurant. Out went the fried eggs and bacon, and in came the calamari! Can you imagine trying to introduce calamari to a menu in 1969?” Panagiotis explains.
Over the years, the Xenos Greek Restaurant has grown from strength to strength, and its expansion reflects this. Customers are now more well-travelled and sophisticated. They take advantage of cheap flights to Europe where they visit Greece and are introduced to the cuisine and hospitality; upon their return to Australia, they look for a Greek restaurant to rekindle their fond memories… and Xenos Restaurant satisfies this.
For many years now, Panagiotis and Katerina’s sons, Tim (Timotheos) and Dennis (Dionysios) have been part of the business; Dennis’ daughter, Dimity Marie, and Tim’s daughter, Eugenia, now help out too, which makes this truly a family business. Asked about the secret of their success, Panagiotis says, “The secret to anyone’s success is hard work and doing your best always. People appreciate all the hard work we put into Xenos restaurant. They appreciate our business’ longevity in the area; we have grown old with them; our children grew up with their children. We feel at home here and we look after our customers as if they are in our home.” There are so many examples of the Xenos Restaurant’s Greekness whether it is its blue and white awning, the array of Greek foods on the menu or Greek and Greek postcards adoring one wall. What truly signifies Australia’s acceptance of Greeks and their cuisine are the two flags – one Greek and the other Australian – at the counter, a testament to the Greek contribution to Australia’s food industry.
* Vasilis Vasilas is the author of ‘Beyond the Shop Windows and Counters: Stories and Photographs of Sydney’s Current Greek Shops (Volume 1)’