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Effy Alexakis And Leonard Janiszewski

First Soda Fountain's to Australia

The ‘Greek café’: the future of Australia’s past

In 1912, three Greek migrant/settlers from the United States, Peter and Constantine Soulos and Anthony Louison (Iliopoulos), formed the Anglo-American Company in Sydney. Based upon the American drug store soda bar, the company’s shops (five by the mid-1910s) broadly exposed Sydneysiders to the soda fountain [1] — which created effervescent water through impregnation with a gas under pressure, to which flavours (essentially essences) were added, and if desired, ice cream. It has been claimed that around the same year, George Sklavos, a Greek shopkeeper in Brisbane’s inner city suburb of Fortitude Valley — who had spent some time in America — also procured a soda fountain, [2] and that Angelos Tarifas (also referred to as Bouzos or Bourtzos, and later as Burgess), another Greek with experience in the United States, had installed a soda fountain in his Niagara Café in Newcastle, New South Wales, just before 1910. [3]

These soda fountains are assumed to have been ‘front service’ — they were operated from the front bar or counter. This revolutionary design had been created in the United States in 1903. However, ‘back service’ (back bar or counter) soda fountains had been patented in America in 1819, and it seems that one very enterprising Kytherian Greek, Basil (Vasili) Karatza, possessed what may have been a reconfigured ‘back service’ soda fountain in his shop in the Western Australian mining town of Day Dawn, as early as 1906. [4]

1. Feltham, L. R. M., Service for Soda Fountains, Ice-cream parlours and Milk Bars, Heywood and Co. Ltd in association with the Confectioner’s Union, London, 1936.
2. Gebhard, D., and Von Breton, H., Los Angeles in the Thirties: 1931-1941, Hennessey & Ingalls Inc., Los Angeles, 1989.
3. ‘He found the milky way to fortune’, Sunday Telegraph, 19 April 1964, p. 51.
4. Janiszewski, L., and Alexakis, E., ‘“American Beauties” at the Niagara: the marriage of American food catering ideas to British-Australian tastes and the birth, life and demise of the classic Australian “Greek café”’, Keynote Address, ‘Out There? Rural and Regional Conference’, National Trust of Australia (N.S.W.), National Trust Centre, Observatory Hill, Sydney, 10 March 2003.

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Peter Tsicalas
on 02.06.2006

I’m not clear on the significant difference between a soda fountain shop that offers ‘back bar’ service over one with a ‘front bar’ service, but I’ve assumed that the terms merely differentiate between old and new carbonating technology, and that in the former shop the counter jockey generally turns his back on the customer to create his masterpiece and in the latter proudly demonstrates his skill face to face, even though it could be concocted from a ‘back bar’ contraption installed at the front? Anyway…., I’d like to get a handle on the nature of the early soda fountains in Lismore if anyone can decipher the adverts in the local rag? The story unfolds like this: Colin Nelson, a leading fruiterer, caterer and wine shop proprietor in Lismore since 1893, began appealing to the Temperance crowd in 1897: For the Temperance Drinkers the firm also caters, and makes and holds large stocks of Ginger and Hop Beer, Cider, &c, &c, besides making up at a moment’s notice Lemon Squashes, iced drinks,….. Whether he had a soda fountain at this stage is not stated, but he claimed this honour a couple of years later. (Aerated soft drinks and soda water however, had been available to the Lismore citizens since 1876 when the Balzer family introduced the region’s first commercial bottling plant.) In 1899 Nelson opened a second shop, 'The Palace of Sweets', with ten marble topped tables where you could get …Iced drinks, ice cream, fruit salad … Hop Beer, a splendid tonic drink, bright and sparkling... In 1900 the Palace morphed into ‘Nelson’s 3d Bar and Soft-drink Saloon’. …A good glass of wine, A hot cup of tea, An ice cold Soda Squash, A delicious Fruit Drink drawn through ice from the Marble Soda Fountain (Hot or Cold – any way you like – at 3d a glass.) Our American Milk Shakes and Squashes, our Strawberry and Vanilla Ice Cream, with jelly, are served in the latest American style….thus positively identifying the first soda fountain/milk bar/sundae shop in Lismore, if not in the region. Although this is the first mention of the word ‘milkshake’ in any caterer’s adverts, it's hard to believe they were a brand new sensation in a region already swimming in milk. Maybe he meant ‘malted milkshakes’, allegedly introduced by those enterprising Americans in the late 1880s? (Another caterer, John Smith around in Molesworth Street, promptly followed suit with Our … Yankee Milk Shakes are so popular…) Munro’s Temperance Bar opened in late 1901 offering ‘all kinds of iced drinks’, followed by Stratford’s Refreshment Rooms in early 1902 with iced soda squashes, delicious milkshakes, clear, cold and sparkling hop and ginger beer,… all kinds of soft drinks too numerous to mention… , prompting Bill Roffey, his competitor who opened the Coronation Refreshment Rooms at the same time, to change his similar adverts to specifically state his Lemon Squashes were made from real lemons; no acids used, and introduce additional drinks, including Lime Juice Squashes…. and Soda Squash (maybe bottled stuff from Balzer’s?) Whether any of these elixirs were generated by a soda fountain carbonator is not mentioned until mid 1904 when Bill Roffey specifically stated he had one of the wonders, at the same time Bill Matterson joined the game with a ‘drink counter’ on one side of his doorway and a fruit stand on the other, leading to a sit down meal service at the rear. Then in late 1904 they all got some hot competition in the drink business when John Smith in Molesworth did a major renovation, which included the installation of a new marble bar and a new name, Smith’s Marble Bar, incorporating a Patent Carbonating Machine, which is the very latest triumph in the Science of Drinkology. He could do you 23 different flavours in pure sparkling effervescence at 3d a glass, and even a man with a tin palate could appreciate the delicacy of their flavorosity.… He was the Paragon Purveyor of Luxurosities to Lismore… and his carbonating machine was the leading Irrigatory Works. The marble bar/counter was made locally, but the origin and nature of the carbonating machinery it housed is a mystery. His claims generated a bit of controversy however, particularly getting up the nose of Bill Roffey: Every business has a right to combat its competitors, provided he does it in a fair and businesslike manner, not lowering himself to attain his ends by dastardly attempts to injure his competitor in the eyes of the public, …. Replied Smith: One of your advertisers takes exception… and says ‘There has been one of the SAID NOVELTIES in Lismore for the past six years’ (ie since 1898). I have neither time nor inclination to follow him into the illimitable regions of vulgar personalities. But, in order that my original assertion may not be obscured by chaff, and to prove its truth, I have just placed the sum of Ten Pounds…. Replied Bill: …Smith … appears again with a supply of bluff and imputations…. He says my advertisement is cunningly worded to deceive the public. I say it is a plain intimation of facts without personalities, embellishments or buffoonery… And on and on. Bill introduced the name Washington H. Soul into the argument: … He (Smith) says his machine is much ahead of anything of its kind in the district. I am glad to see he has climbed down a bit. He states in his advertisement it is equal to anything in Sydney. That’s where he gets his comparisons. Washington H. Soul’s machine is like the present century bicycle, and his the velocipede? …. my machine is as good as his… Caleb Soul, the founder of the Soul Patterson Chemist chain, allegedly introduced the American style of 'soda fountain drugstore' to Australia in the 1880s. The fountain was a cunning way of flogging therapeutic concoctions, ‘snake oil’, a lot containing alcohol to the chagrin of the temperance afflicted. The closest the Richmond district came to going the drug store route was at Woodburn, where the two cafes in town acted as agents for out-of-town chemists, druggists and herbalists. The concept doesn’t seem to have caught on in Australia and by the late 1920s the Woodburn cafes (one Greek) had reverted to being pure refreshment providers, although laws requiring a qualified chemist to supervise the dispensing of anything smacking of ‘poisonous drugs’ may have ended the practice. In 1908 'Sacket & Howard,' separate caterers/bakers in Lismore for the past 12yrs, combined forces to take over the Zervouthakis business in Molesworth Street, and in 1909 did a major makeover to emerge as ‘the most up-to-date refreshment rooms outside Sydney’…with the latest ‘marble counter’ …three soda fountains and special lights… handsome plate glass mirrors behind the counter reaching to the ceiling…over 30 varieties of drinks already carried and another two score varieties of high-class essences to be added… And a month later ‘Our Illuminated Marble Drinking Counter dispenses 50 different sorts of iced drinks’. Zervouthakis, aka Zerbothakis, Zervoudakis and J. Z. Thakis, had opened an oyster saloon, dubbed 'The American Café,' in Molesworth Street 1906 and shortly afterwards was offering New American Drinks… Iced Drinks of all kinds a speciality… along with oysters and steaks. Whilst not specifically stated, it’s worth a bet that the drinks came from a soda fountain. And Peter Comino, who established in Lismore in 1903 and absorbed Munro’s Temperance Bar next door in 1904, is also in the vague category – ‘all kinds of summer drinks’ - until he moved from Woodlark to Molesworth to open the Olympia in 1911 and specifically extolled the virtues of his two large marble counters either side of the doorway, each housing the latest automatic carbonator. Ditto the Andrulakis, who took over Nelson’s original wine shop in 1904 and only ever advertised 'soft drinks 3d a glass' as a sideline to oysters and steaks (and ‘boiled fowl with oyster sauce, one shilling.’) Despite not knowing what I’m talking about, and given that infallible google reckons nobody thought of ‘front bar’ until 1903, I've assumed that Nelson's 1898 contraption was ‘back bar' (however defined), that Zervoudakis was the first Greek to install one of the things, and that Smith went so over the top with his new toy that it had to be a quantum leap to ‘front bar.’ But I'd be happy to hear from any knowledgeable person who knows otherwise. And a head scratcher: In 1913 the Royal Hotel started boasting of the best and latest American Bar in town (compared with the simple Ale on Draught in previous adverts.) Does ‘American’ imply, as with the cafes, that the pubs finally adapted soda fountain technology to dispense (and/or supplement the CO2 content of) keg/cask/barrel/draught beer, ~15yrs behind the enterprising soft drink marketers? And for soft drink tragics, in the early 1920s George Pappas of Mullumbimby had the reputation for offering the tastiest brew in the region. He took over the Carkagis Bros business in early 1922 and installed a new marble bar and the latest version of the American soda fountain, dispensing a magic soda fountain mix that addicted everyone who tasted the stuff. In 1923 he was convinced to bottle his blend, commissioning his own bottles embossed with ‘Mullumbimby Café’ and distributing throughout the region, giving the established commercial bottlers, using artificial essences, a fright. These rare bottles are now collector’s items. [And incidentally, Michael Symonds, in his book One Continuous Picnic; A history of eating in Australia, claims that …A Californian, S. M. McKimmin, opened the Golden Gate Sundae Shop, said to be Australia’s first soda fountain, in Sydney in 1921. and …The date given for the first milk bar in Australia is 1933’. Like ‘frontbar/backbar’, it’s probably a game of semantics (ie, What’s a soda fountain/milkbar/sundae shop/…?) And by the bye, the Greeks only rate a passing reference in this 278 page book – within a paragraph dealing with the origin of the stereotypical Australian male’s tendency to bolt down his meals. ……colonials boasting of this fast feeding and saying that a ‘slow feeder is a slow worker’. ….The same approach continued in the mixed grill served in what became known between the wars as the ‘Greeks’, the café remembered in country towns. You dined even worse at pub counter-lunches. It was the tradition of the grace: ‘bog in, don’t wait’. …… The implication is that the Greeks catered to the down-market segment of the feedlot business and that posh nosheries and leisurely dining were city indulgences. Best I can determine, the first use of the term ‘counter-lunch’ in Lismore was in 1907 when the Royal Hotel, next door to Comino, began offering this simpler fare – probably prompted by the rapidly expanding ‘all-hours’ café competition which cut patronage of its silver-service dining room, staffed with underpaid Chinese cooks. (But even when the Olympia opened in 1911 and became the first café to introduce a banqueting room to challenge the pub’s monopoly of the big function and black-tie affairs, the pubs continued to dominate this side of the posh nosh business for many years. A little after the Olympia opening, the Freemason’s Hotel across the road played host to the Master Builders and Architects Association of the Richmond and Tweed, offering a monster menu that included schnapper and oyster sauce, mayonnaise of crab, duck and apple sauce, sirloin of beef and horse raddish, pigeon and ham pie, anchovies on toast and olives…., mayonnaise being the only French word in sight.) And suitable for a cryptic crossword was Peter Comino’s boast of a … New Style of Cooking Fish... in his opening adverts for ‘The Sydney Oyster Saloon.’ (Maybe the Fish Friar and the Chip Monk changed their habits, although‘smoked’ or ‘boiled’ were the usual prefixes to the rare fish dish featured on menus at this time.) Whatever it means, Comino’s arrival on the scene prompted a minor menu revolution. A month later Bill Roffey, a few doors down from Comino, changed the name of his joint to ‘The British Oyster Saloon’, and his house specialities went from ‘Steak, Onions & Potatoes’ and ‘Mutton Cutlets & Potatoes’ to ‘Steak & Oysters’ and ‘Chop & Oysters’ (sounding awfully like the dreaded carpetbag steaks of the 1960s.) And a little after Comino’s mid 1904 makeover he was further spooked, advertising as ‘The only British Luncheon Room in Lismore’, and cryptically as … ‘the only legitimate restaurant in Lismore, in reality, not in name only (to defeat the laws of the country)’! Comino then took the micky a bit further by claiming ‘Epicureans are unanimous in their verdict that Comino’s Restaurant is the best place in Lismore…. So far as I can tell, all caterers appear to have gone down-market during the 1890s Depression and the first reappearance of the ritzy word ‘restaurant’ was in Comino’s adverts: …the Best Restaurant, Oyster Saloon and Tea Rooms on the Northern Rivers. Bill responded with a shout: Mr William Roffey wishes to announce that he has secured the services of a FIRST-CLASS CHEF at considerable expense and has opened a RESTAURANT in connection with his present business (The Coronation Refreshment Room, aka The British Oyster Saloon, …) He threw in the tea towel in 1905 and apparently returned to his old trade as a ‘general decorator.’] And a final bit of trivia: Although never featuring on any café menu, sausages were the most expensive item in the butcher’s arsenal. Through to the late 1890s the butchers in town were simply providing ‘steak’ (at 3½d/lb) along with corned beef, salted beef, hind and fore quarter beef, roasting beef, mutton, pork, sausages (4d/lb) and heaps of suet. By 1900 they were getting more specialized, providing prime rib roasts, rump and sirloin steak (at 5d/lb), and a range of other cuts, but still with the pricey mystery-bag sausages at 5d/lb. By early 1903 rump steak had hit 6d/lb, temporarily overtaking beef sausages, but by mid year pork sausages at 8d/lb ended the trend. Special discounts were offered to those buying in excess of 25lb lots, presumably the main customers being the high turnover pubs, boarding houses and refreshment rooms. Would never have guessed that at one time sausages were the most expensive treat on the menu (if they ever appeared.)