Last week saw the end of an era when the Albert Park Deli passed from the Xynas family, who founded the business in 1974, to new owner, former employee Jeanette Barker.
“Jeanette worked for five years with us and knows the area well. She was general manager of Grossi Florentino where she worked for over 20 years,” said Spiridoula (Spiz) Demetriou, daughter of the deli’s founders Vasili and Vasiliki Xynas.
Knowing the area and its people well is one of the chief reasons why the deli has become such institution for the Albert Park community.
Ms Demetriou and her brothers, Arthur, Peter and Stratis grew up above the shop which was been part of their lives since childhood. The children took over the running of the deli from their parents in the mid-1980s. Ms Demetriou’s husband, Andy, a psychologist, helped in the running of the business for 35 years as did sisters-in-law Vicky, Lidia and Vicki.
“Albert Park Deli was the main income for five families in all that time. It was the mainstay of the family throughout the years,” Ms Demetriou told Neos Kosmos. All took turns at different times. Ms Demetriou, a qualified secondary school teacher also completed her doctorate “Imagining Modern Greece: Mesologgi, Philhellenism and Art in the 19th century”. Her mother was born in Evinochori, near Mesologgi and her father hailed from Thermo.
“Arthur was a TV technician across the road from the deli, Strati studied photography and Peter was the mainstay of the shop throughout all the phases,” said Ms Demetriou. Strati and Peter have long been involved as community football coaches.
“We have been talking about (handing the business over) for five years. We are all approaching our 60s. We are tired and COVID also affected the running of the deli. Also, Mum died in October and wanted to be buried in Greece. We are awaiting for our exit permits to go (to honour her wishes),” she said.
READ MORE: The end of the “sweet” era for Hellas Cakes
The deli which Vasili launched in 1973 as a milk bar serviced the largely working class community of mainly Greeks and Italians in Albert Park.
“There was nothing idealised about living above the shop, people saw us warts and all.”
In 1977, Vasili Xynas sold the shop and packed the family to Greece obeying a call within him to return to the land of his birth. The family settled in Messologi and for two years tried to make a go of it.
“We appreciated our parents and our extended family and could see where they came from. Dad got the repatriation (longing) out of him and we returned to Albert Park.
“He bought the shop back from the couple to whom he had sold it to in 1977. Generally the threshold for running a milk bar tended to be two years and they were more than ready to sell. When, we the children, took over from our parents we ran the shop seven days a week for four years and that was very demanding.
Albert Park changes
“Albert Park is not on the way to anywhere until you hit the water (Port Philip Bay) there is no major road that leads through the suburb. Here you see the same faces and you say ‘good morning’ to each other. There is a community feel much like a village,” said Ms Demetriou.
Over the years, Albert Park became gentrified, many of the Greeks and Italians sold up and moved out to suburbs like Doncaster.
Tastes have changed since the 1970s and the deli evolved from milk bar to a delicatessen that offered a sit-down menu of over 50 dishes a day and which changed each day.
“As the area gentrified (in the 1980s) we saw the opportunity to offer cooked food. I made a rice pudding and minestrone soup and that sold quickly. We went to offering 16 dishes and hired more staff, for the kitchen and a trained chef. It was still a delicatessen, but we were also selling cooked food.
“As the coffee culture developed, my brothers wanted to bring in a coffee machine. I resisted as I thought it would be a ‘bastardisation’ of what was an over-the-counter shop. Then came the tables and chairs (for sit-down meals). It was a commercial idea that worked,” said Ms Demetriou who stressed the fact that the community supported the changes as they came.
“We could not have made the transitions without public support. We were not based on trends but gave the people what they wanted. … we would include a dish on the menu on a particular day when a customer would specify he or she wanted it.
“We tried to look after the people who were within walking range of the deli as they would come three times a week, rather than to cater to those following the latest trend who would just come once. The shop facilitated connectivity in the area between the communities,” said Ms Demetriou.
“There are a number of cafés in the area but not one where you will see 50 different foods on offer every day and a daily changing menu. The only thing we didn’t make was loukoumia.”
Ms Demetriou said there was also a sense of achievement in the fact that several careers were launched from their time at the deli and a number of Apprentices of the Year Awards to former employees was testimony of the deli’s legacy within Melbourne’s hospitality industry.
READ MORE: Counter Culture
“There is a sense of achievement in seeing the student surpass the teacher,” said Ms Demetriou who was proud of the deli’s staff role in the business
“I have had to speak harshly to customers who ill treated our staff. When you work in a place as long as we have, you can respond to the excessive behaviour of some customers,” she said.
Part of the challenges that the deli faced was from the rise of franchises which determined the rent and which, in turn, impacted on small business.
“There is no way small operators today could gather the capital to open a business the way my parents did in their day. Besides, would you want to be behind the counter seven days of the week?”
Her father came to Australia in the 1950s and went to work in cane fields of Queensland. The money he saved from the tough jobs of the early years went into setting up the deli in 1973.
In the message to the Albert community that sustained the business, the family wrote on social media:
“We thank each and every patron with great reverence, and all the friends we have made along the way. The Xynas family bow to you all for keeping the shop going through all its transformations from the Milk Bar days when our parents ran it – to the present COVID stay-safe model.
“We are honoured that the Deli was often the last place people visited before going away, and the first upon their return. We thank the many employees who worked beside us.
“We leave proud knowing that we have contributed to a sense of community in the area.”
For now, the family is focused on honouring their mother’s wishes to be buried in Greece – beyond that, the world is their oyster.