From Greek heyday to COVID-19: a business leader reflects

In the first of an occasional series, Dora Houpis looks at the life of interesting Greek-Australians from all walks of life and asks them for their advice on dealing with Coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions

Prominent Melbourne businessman Jim Pothitos learnt the score about business at 15 years old.

It was the then working class inner-Melbourne suburb of Prahran, the year was 1962 and the Credit Squeeze sent consumer demand plummeting and the economy spiralling.

Showcasing Greek hospitality, Mr Pothitos’ parents, who migrated from Greece six years earlier, would put up newly-arrived migrants in their house until they became established.

His role was to interpret for them and help them find work.

“We would go to Dandenong (by train) at six in the morning and work our way back to Oakleigh on foot,” Mr Pothitos said.

He said he would go into the factories with the newly-arrived migrants, and the factory owners would tell them straight: “There’s no work. No workers wanted.”

“So before you walked into the factory, you knew what the score was,” Mr Pothitos said.

This ability to know the score, saw him establish and own the iconic, The Greek Deli and Taverna, in South Yarra, for 30 years, make his beloved Chapel St an international tourist destination and see the Greeks cement their place in now trendy Prahran.

From Lesvos to Prahran

The Pothitos family came from the Greek island of Lesvos. His father Constantinos came to Melbourne in January 1956. His mother Magdaleni, 4-year-old brother Steve and he, at 9 years of age, came in September.

“Just before the Olympics, in November 1956,” Mr Pothitos said.

His parents bought a house in Osborne St, South Yarra, he went to the local primary school, Toorak Central for the then forms 1 and 2, and then Chadstone High School.

He then worked at the Bank of NSW (now Westpac), on Chapel St, for five years, often interpreting for Greek customers.

Then the family started their foray into the hospitality industry.

They ran the 2 in One Cafe, that ran off Chapel St at 245 Malvern Rd, for five years, then ran Pothitos Travel on the same road for another two years, before establishing the The Greek Deli.

The Greek Deli

In 1985, the Pothitos family bought three restaurants in a row on Chapel St, sold two, and kept The Greek Deli and Taverna. Mr Pothitos ran the family business with his son as chef,until it closed 30 years later, in 2014.

“We took a lot of care,” Mr Pothitos said.

“Our aim was to please as many people as possible, as often as possible.

“We always bought the freshest food.”

But, Mr Pothitos’s ability to gauge the business winds of the time, also contributed to the restaurant’s longevity.

“1985 was the time hospitality took off in Melbourne,” he said.

“We formed the Chapel St Traders Association, which later changed to Streets Ahead Incorporated.

“It was to prompt Chapel St from Dandenong Road to the Yarra River.”

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Chapel Street Traders Association

Mr Pothitos was the association’s president for 15 years and said the group was instrumental in promoting the area.

“Our aim was to make the street known internationally,” he said.

Mr Pothitos said that international recognition was achieved by the association working with Tourism Victoria and ensuring brochures advertising the street were in airports and the old City Square. There were also the hotels in the area, like the Como, near the corner of Toorak Rd and Chapel St, to house these overseas tourists.

The association started off in the 1990s with a budget of $15,000 from Prahran Council and, when he left the group in 2012, its budget had grown to $1 million.

To kick-start promoting Chapel St, the group started with the hugely successful Chapel St Fiesta, in the early 1990s.

He said 16,000 people attended the first street festival, 60,000 the second and a whopping 250,000 people attended when the fiesta linked up with the Spring Racing Carnival and was held on the Sunday before the Melbourne Cup.

Mr Pothitos said the association’s biggest achievement was helping in the development of the 50-storey, Capitol Grand and LK Tower, on the corner of Chapel St and Toorak Rd. It is the tallest landmark building outside the Melbourne CBD.

Greek Community’s Heyday

Mr Pothitos remembered the 1980s as the heyday for the Greek community in Prahran.

“The old City of Prahran had a population of 58,000 and 28,000 were Greek. And that’s a fact,” he said.

“All these streets (in Prahran) – full of Greeks.

“And they have all gone out to the broader community.”

Although some Greeks still remained in Prahran, Mr Pothitos remembered a time when “nine out of 10” houses in one street, Victoria St, Prahran, were Greeks.

“Housing was so cheap,” Mr Pothitos said.

“With $2,000 – $3,000 in the 1960s, you’d buy a house.” (Australian decimal currency was introduced on 14 February 1966.)

Mr Pothitos remembered the Greek houses were close to people’s work and the work was in light industry, like clothing, in and around Chapel St.

There were overlockers, machinists and maker-uppers who cut the material in the factory before it was contracted out as piecework. Mr Pothitos said a couple working could earn a good income.

“The working people were all eating well, dressed well,” he said.

Mr Pothitos said many popular Chapel St businesses were Greek owned. They included The Swan Hotel (which is now the Fox and I), a Greek fish shop with”no name” (which is now Hooked Fish and Chipper) and a kafeneio on the corner of High and Chapel streets, (which is now Club OneSixOne).

One business though has remained with the one Greek family since the 1960s. He said The Osborne Rooftop and Bar, formerly the Royal Exchange Hotel, has been owned by the same Greek family. He said they introduced the first gastro-pub restaurant in Commercial Rd, the “Z” bar.

But, the area’s Greek church was there from the early days, too.

Mr Pothitos said the present-day St Constantine and Eleni, which his mother helped establish, was originally in Charles St, before it “caved in”.

He said he remembered the church holding services at St Martin’s Anglican Church, at the corner of Cromwell Rd and Wilson St, Hawksburn, before St Constantine and Helen, at its present- day location in Barry St, was built.

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Greeks’ Contribution Honoured

But a flourishing community needs to be honoured and Prahran, Windsor, South Yarra and other neighbouring suburbs are full of plaques and statues that recognise and celebrate the contributions Greeks made.

There is a bronze sculpture of a naked, barefoot ancient Greek male Olympic torchbearer on two sides of a monument that sits directly opposite Sts Constantine and Helen, at 35-39 Barry St, South Yarra. There is no inscription on the monument, just an Australian and Greek flag behind it.

Mr Pothitos said the monument needed a plaque and remembered it used to be at Chapel off Chapel, in Malvern Rd.

That music,theatre and cabaret venue has its own Greek art.

On short pillars on the Malvern Rd side of Chapel off Chapel, in the forecourt, are motifs of dragons, Leonard Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and a chariot race with the Parthenon in the distant background.

Jim Pothitos stands beside the chariot painting. Photo: Dora Houpis. Photo: Dora Houpis

There is also the Harry Gregory reserve in 76-78 Hornby St, Windsor, named after the former Mayor of Prahran from a Greek background. In the reserve is a plaque with another two Greek names, the then Mayor of Prahran and solicitor, John Velos and Cr S. Makris.

And, of course, there is Pothitos Lane, South Yarra, behind Mr Pothitos’ The Greek Deli and Taverna, previously at 583 Chapel St, South Yarra.

Mr Pothitos’ father didn’t live to see the lane, but his mother did. His family were in Prahran for 50 years between 1957 and 2007, and Mr Pothitos said the laneway honoured the family living and trading in the suburb for so long.

“It’s not much, but we are very proud,” he said.

“It’s a little lane of 13.2m.”

Jim Pothitos admires the South Yarra lane named after his family. Photo: Dora Houpis

Advice for businesses in lockdown

Mr Pothitos has lived through the 1962 Credit Squeeze, the 1987 stockmarket crash, the 1990s “recession we had to have” and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) that stopped many tourists coming to the precinct’s five-star hotels.

He said established businesses could use the Coronavirus lockdown and trading restrictions to their advantage.

“Every downturn is always the start of a new opportunity,” Mr Pothitos said.

“It’s a great time to be negotiating: tenants to negotiate contracts with landlords.”

Mr Pothitos said rent rates were even more important for the new businesses.

“To the new (businesses), negotiate a very favourable rent,” he said.

“Because it’s a fixed income and that will control their future.

“Once you’re locked in, you’re locked in.”

A good rent rate will act as a buffer, he said.

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Another shock absorber would be traders associations continuing to promote their shops, in fact, even intensifying their marketing.

“You just can’t let it drop off because you don’t have customers,” Mr Pothitos said.

“You still must advertise and be at the forefront.”

Local councils needed to help with this, Mr Pothitos said.

“Councils must protect their assets,” he said.

Mr Pothitos said a traders association should also be a body traders could turn to in the difficult times and notify struggling businesses of state and federal government help.

The future of Chapel Street

Mr Pothitos said he recently travelled to Chapel St and the empty shops and those forced to suspend trading because of COVID-19 restrictions, broke his heart.

“It makes me bleed,” he said.

But, as always, he can size up what’s in the wind for business, and the large hotel and shop development, at 402 Chapel St, is what people should focus on.

“It will save Chapel St,” Mr Pothitos said.

“I believe Chapel St, it’s always been the last one to go down and the first to get up.”

He said the shopping strip had a good future because it stretched 3km from Dandenong Rd to the Yarra River and it had a large variety of speciality shops where customers got one-on-one attention.

Mr Pothitos agreed the rents were too high along Chapel St before the start of coronavirus, and has advice for landlords.

“Take care of the goose that lays the golden egg,” he said.

“There must be a dollar for the landlord, a dollar for the tenant, and a dollar for the next person who takes over.

“This used to be the most vibrant street in Australia.

“Five of us (restauranteurs) got together and said: ” We were going to get Chapel St known nationally and internationally. This is going back in the late 1980s.

“Everybody coming to Melbourne wanted to know where Chapel St was.

“There was something here for everyone.”

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Chapel Street Precinct is Australia’s largest retail, entertainment and lifestyle precinct in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Photo: WIkipedia

Greek Independence Bicentennial

Mr Pothitos, 73 years old, is married with three children and five grandchildren, and lives in a south-eastern Melbourne suburb.

Although retired, he does consulting work. Two years ago he helped bring 20 Hellenic Presidential Guards (Evzones) to Melbourne’ s famous Hellenuc precinct,Eaton Mall. About 15,000 people visited the precinct in two days.

Next year, is the bicentennial of Greek independence, and he hopes to help Oakleigh celebrate again.

But, he has been contemplating another project. As part of a year 10 assignment, his granddaughther has written a history of the Pothitos family. That has prompted him to consider writing his own autobiography.

CORONAVIRUS

Mr Pothitos said he hoped there would be no more coronavirus lockdowns.

“I wish everyone luck with this one,” he said.

“It’s the most adverse thing I’ve seen in business.

“Everybody help each other: landlords, tenants, families.

“It’s more serious than we anticipated.

“Everybody, follow the rules.”