Seven decades ago, Nik Tsapaliaris (Chapley) fled Ikaria with his mother and brother, John, seeking a better future in Australia.
Today, the 87-year-old business is celebrating 70 years of success Down Under.
“My brother and I have always done business together and we continue to do so, but we also like to venture and do things separately. We are certainly proud of how far we have come and what we have achieved, but at the same time we are most grateful to our staff, because they are the most important asset in our business. Our relationship with them is based purely on respect and honesty. We started as a family of four and we have grown to a family of 2000,” Mr Chapley told Neos Kosmos.
Born in Ikaria in 1934, Nik Chapley (Tsapaliaris), is considered one of the most successful businessmen in Australia, however, his life journey and scaling to the top has not always been paved with rose petals.
“I remember the beautiful but also difficult years back in Ikaria, the war that broke and forced us to flee the island, the three years spent in the Sahara Desert as refugees and the long hopeful journey to Australia. Despite the hardships though, if I had my time again, I would not change anything in my book of life, because those experiences were the ones that shaped me and made me the man I am today,” Mr Chapley said.
The difficult years in the Sahara desert
The first few years in Ikaria were relatively prosperous for the Tsapaliaris family.
Family patriarch Spiros, a shoemaker by trade, had already left Ikaria and settled in Australia where he worked hard so that he could provide for his wife and his two young children that were left behind.
“My father didn’t like Australia or maybe he just loved his island too much, therefore, his initial plan was to work Down Under for a few years and – once financially stable – to return to Greece,” Mr Chapley said.
When World War II broke out, things took an unexpected turn for the family and Spiros was no longer able to send funds back to Ikaria.
Fearing the worst, Nik’s mother decided to take her two children and flee the island in a small boat.
They ended up in the Sahara Desert as refugees under the Red Cross Care Scheme (1942).
“We spent three very difficult years there. I will never forget the hunger, the poverty and the inhumane conditions that we had to endure. The greatest lesson I learnt there is that the worst thing that can happen to a human being is to become a refugee and lose their own sense of self and dignity,” Mr Chapley said, who returned to his little village in Ikaria in 1945.
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Back on the island of Ikaria
Post WW2, Greeks all over the country and particularly the islanders, were struggling to stand on their own two feet.
The financial struggles and extreme poverty were impossible to overcome, so the young mother would often write letters to her husband begging him to allow her and the children migrate to Australia.
“Our father used to write back saying Australia was not the place for us, and he was adamant that we stay in Ikaria until he returned. Our mother continued to work as a seamstress, spending most of her days visiting neighbouring villages to exchange the clothes she had made for some oil, bread or vegetables,” Mr Chapley said, remembering the day that he and his brother reached the point where they had absolutely nothing to eat.
“Our mother was absent for three days and had left us with our grandmother. As we got hungry, we decided to unlock the food chest she kept in the kitchen only to find that there was not one single grain of rice left for us to eat, so we literally turned the food chest upside down, collected the rice powder that had accumulated in between the wooden slats and boiled it to share with our grandmother.”
When the young mother returned, she convinced Spiros it was time for them to join him in Australia.
The family reunited on 28 January, 1949.
Nik, aged 14 at the time, and his brother John started working at their father’s little deli in a small country town outside New South Wales.
Nik would wash dishes and at the same time study the dictionary to learn how to speak English.
In 1969, on Christmas Day, he married 16-year-old Stamatiki and together they had three children.
After years of setting up eateries in NSW and country Victoria, the first one being the very popular Wattle Café, the family sold up everything and, in 1979, moved to South Australia.
The two brothers bought their first supermarket in Adelaide, but their joy was overshadowed by the death of their father, who suffered a heart attack and died inside his shop at the age of 60.
Spiros never returned to Ikaria.
Today the Chapley family is considered one of the most successful Greek families in Australia.
One of Mr Nik’s’ supermarkets, Frewville Foodland IGA, has been awarded the World’s Best Supermarket (International Retailer of the Year) by the Independent Grocers Alliance (IGA), for three consecutive years and it is considered Australia’s first certified organic supermarket.
There is even a health-and-wellness section and live music instore, including a piano and guitar, showcasing local talent.
The sky is the limit
Marking his 70th year in business, the tireless Ikarian, has unveiled his vision, which involves the development of a new gourmet supermarket integrated with an on-site urban farm.
Son and business partner Spero said the duo were looking for a greenfield site to build the new store, while also exploring the idea of introducing in-store farming at the family’s award-winning supermarkets.
“We’re looking at ways to bring in on-site small pod gardens, which is happening around the world – to have our chefs walk out of the kitchen and pick some herbs off the garden.”
For Mr Nick, as Mr Chapley is affectionatly known, it’s a return to the past, when he worked at his father’s cafe in the small NSW town of Moulamein.
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“My father for 10 years was running a market garden. It’s part of our culture. It’s a really good story,” said the tireless businessman, father and grandfather who together with his son Spero also set up Youth Inc., an alternative and independent, senior secondary school designed specifically for young people aged 17-24 years, who are looking for non-conventional education.
“We set up the school because we wanted to give young people opportunities to succeed, and for me real success means treating everyone with respect, working hard, trying new things and giving back to the community.
“I always tell my children and grandchildren; if success is not shared, then it’s not worth having,” Mr Nik concluded.