Greek migrants were the first to commercialise espresso coffee and make it available to the Australian public through their milk bars, according to Macquarie University researchers, documentary photographer Effy Alexakis and historian Leonard Janiszewski.
The popular belief that Italians first provided Australian customers with the hot beverage may indeed be an urban myth. However, they were quick to point out that Australians of Italian descent were drinking espresso coffee amongst themselves from the 1930s onwards in their grocery stores and Italian restaurant kitchens.
“There was a big change that took place in milk bars and cafes during the ’40s and ’50s,” the historian tells Neos Kosmos, “and that was the introduction of modernism.” Mr Janiszewski says there were two prime examples of this at the time in terms of architectural changes – the Patricia’s Milk Bars in Sydney and the Legend Cafe and Milk Bar in Melbourne, both operated by Greek Australians.
“The owner of Patricia’s Milk Bars in Sydney, Sam Akon (Economopoulos), changed his milk bars, converted the interiors, modernised them – in fact he used a modernist designer called Douglas Annand and he became internationally recognised and converted the interiors of the milk bars. You had a very little glass reflective back bar with a mural at the back where the subject matter was the atomic age – so splitting of atoms, those types of things.”
He said that the owner/operators of both milk bars – Mr Nicolades of Legend Cafe and Mr Akon of Patricia’s Milk Bars – were willing to take the risk to change their style, altering the business type and clientele.
Alexakis and Janiszewski point out that Sam Akon (Economopoulos) is said to have introduced an Italian espresso machine – La Carimali – into two of his renowned Sydney milk bars (both called Patricia’s) in the late 1940s. Apparently, J. Goldstein & Co. (an Australian manufacturer and distributor of café and milk bar equipment), held an import licence for espresso machines before World War II, but this was permitted to lapse during the global conflict. Akon then took up the import licence after the war, probably recognising that with Australia’s new immigration policy, the nation’s population was going to include more continental Europeans and as such, a potential market for European espresso coffee was likely to develop.
Through records, they have researched that there was an espresso machine in Pellegrini’s – on Melbourne’s Bourke Street – in 1954. Pellegrini’s have always claimed to have the first commercial espresso machine, serving Australian customers since that date.
“Akon, recognised that after the war, after 1947 with Australia’s new immigration policy, there was going to be a changing face to the nation and we suspect that was the main reason he brought in the machines, as there were going to be more Southern Europeans coming in,” the historian explains.
“According to private documents from the Andronicus brothers, we found they acquired their first espresso machine in 1952. So if we take a look at the dates, in the late ’40s that Akon had his machines in his Patricia’s Milk Bars, and 1952 for the Andronicus brothers, and then at Pellegrini’s in 1954 – you can see they come before the Italians started commercially using their machines.”
But Mr Janiszewski is quick to point out that this research is up until this particular stage, and they may well discover there were Italian Australians who had commercial espresso available.
“This [research] is based on historical documents in the public,” he says. He did find one document that said Pellegrini’s had a machine in 1952, but the majority of their historical research points to 1954 as the date they had their first commercially available espresso machine.
“It doesn’t matter as Akon had his machines in 1948 and 1949 and he was commercially producing [espresso], then the idea was taken up by others in Sydney first as there was a sense of popularity about it.”
In 1952 the Andronicus Brothers – one of Australia’s earliest coffee roasting businesses in Sydney – had also acquired an espresso machine. Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, one of Melbourne’s earliest Italian coffee houses to offer espresso coffee to the broader Australian public, claims to have acquired its machine two years later in 1954. From the 1950s onwards, the Europeanisation of Australian coffee drinking began to grow, steadily at first, and then during the 1980s and ’90s, at an accelerated rate. Coffee consumption in Australia is now much greater than that of tea. Sam Akon, though, appears to have been the first to consciously sow the seeds of change in regard to the introduction of commercially providing espresso coffee to the Australian public.
As a historian, Mr Janiszewski says most of their research comes from people’s stories and says newspapers such as Neos Kosmos, producing these hidden tales and inspiring innovative stories of Greek Australians of the past, bring new stories to the fore – and he’s keen to hear more.
“When Neos Kosmos puts out articles [on their research] we often get responses and they lead us onto new tracks,” he says.
“History today is not just simple about academics sitting in the archive – it’s about academics going out there talking to people, looking at their personal documentation. There are archives around the country but you always have to ask the question on the broader scale – does someone out there have or have some knowledge of something that we are not aware of? This support from Neos Kosmos, for example, is great because something else may come out of it – it’s communicating with people and getting them involved in the research because they are part of it.”
Leonard Janiszewski will discuss this interesting development in the Greek café research which he and Alexakis have been undertaking in a lecture to the New South Wales branch of the Oral History Association of Australian at Customs House at Circular Quay on Saturday 26 October.
If you’d like to contact Mr Janiszewski and if you have a story to tell email or call (03) 9850 6886.