What’s the difference between a café and oyster saloon? That was the question that perplexed magistrate Mr W. Harris in September 1916. During the second decade of the twentieth century, the oyster bars, saloons, ‘parlors’ and palaces of the nineteenth century morphed into the classic Greek cafés of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s—and the Freeleagus brothers’ Paris Café in Brisbane was right in the middle of it.
In addition to the use of the word café, changes that occurred during the 1910s included the introduction of female staff and the installation of electrically-refrigerated milk bars equipped with soda fountains and milkshake machines, an expanded menu, an impressive array of confectionery, and the layout of shops as described by Denis Conomos (118). In 1916—right in the middle of this decade of change—the Paris Café on the corner of George and Queen Streets became a test case for deciding what this shift meant for employers and their staff. Debate about the difference between a ‘saloon’ and a ‘café’ waged in the City Summons Court in a case between Peter and Christy Freeleagus of Fresh Food and Ice Co. (Freeleagus Bros) and an employee at the Paris who claimed he had been underpaid. Christy argued that the Paris Café was a ‘saloon’ and that wages came under part 3 of the Brisbane Hotel, Club, and Restaurant Employees’ Board award; the employee maintained the Paris was a ‘café’ and that wages came under part 4 of the award.
Peter and Christy Freeleagus learned the oyster trade in Sydney and had been operating oyster saloons in Brisbane since 1903, trading under the high-successful, unofficial brand name of Comino. Christy was so well known and respected by 1909 that a caricature of him (as Christie Comino) and accompanying verse appeared in the local paper (Truth 5.9.09 page 10). He was barely twenty.
Christy explained that he had been involved in determining the award, which had only been established in 1912, and that his input had been received then by the board as that of an oyster saloon-keeper. At that time, he had been employing female staff for three months—he was one of the first oyster saloon-keepers in Brisbane to do this. The Freeleagus Bros had operated the business since 1903, initially as P. Comino, and had upgraded the shop in 1906. The introduction of female staff was likely part of a second upgrade in January 1912, at which time the shop was trading as the ‘New’ Paris Café.
When the examination turned to menu items, the magistrate said that there would be no problem if the board had defined the term ‘oyster saloon,’ although he added, “It seems to me that it doesn’t matter what you call yourselves—it is the class of trade you really do that decides whether you come under part 3 or part 4.” (Daily Standard 13.9.16 page 2). The defence implied that in as much as a café served more than coffee, an oyster saloon might offer more than oysters so he drew on ideas of “class” and “atmosphere” to distinguish between shops like the Paris and places like Rowe’s and Johnsons Cafés. When the magistrate recalled that oyster saloons of the past sold only oysters, fish and ham and eggs, the defence pointed out that when the award was made in 1912 that definition was already out of date.
Mr Harris concluded, “You hold out to the world that you are a café,” and found in favour of the employee. He fined each of the Freeleagus brothers a shilling with court costs of £1 6s 2d. A shilling was nothing to Fresh Food and Ice but since the company employed over fifty Greek men by Conomos’s estimation (120), not to mention non-Greeks and women, the implication of that shilling was enormous. Freeleagus Bros had another major café—the City Café—on the corner of Edward and Adelaide Streets as well as a café at 192 Brunswick Street, a refreshments shop with milk bar in Edward Street, two doors down from City Café, a fish shop next to that, and a café in Boonah. That some of these were now considered cafés under part 4 of the award must have contributed to the program of redevelopment they undertook over the next decade. The Paris was upgraded again in 1919 with the addition of soda fountains and an upstairs Ladies Dining Room, and then completely remodelled in 1924. If they were to pay café wages they might as well reap the benefits that cafés like Rowe’s and Johnsons attracted. In 1929 the City Café was replaced by the company’s showpiece—the very sophisticated Astoria Café. But that, as they say, is another story…
Read more: Denis A. Conomos, Greeks in Queensland: A History from 1859-1945, 2002