Not all Greek migrants owned or worked in cafés; someone had to supply the teapots. Peter Samios left the Kytherian village of Karavas to come to Australia in 1922. While thousands of Greeks donned aprons and stepped behind café counters all over Queensland, Peter supplied milkshake machines and paper straws, monogrammed crockery and engraved sugar bowls, syrups, serviettes, boxes of Bex, lollies and the countless other items proprietors needed to run successful cafés.
The Greek Club in Charlotte Street Brisbane functioned much as a kafeneion—a meeting place where migrants found a microcosm of Greek culture—and from the basement of this building Peter Samios operated a small business selling olives and olive oil. He helped new arrivals find jobs, loans and accommodation and, at the same time, made connections that enabled him to expand into the business of supplying cafés, since many newcomers would go on to run their own shops. Peter registered Samios Foods in 1934. Three years later his fifteen-year-old nephew Frank Zantiotis joined him, and in 1939 Frank’s brother Peter arrived. Samios Foods now had a staff of three. While one managed things in Charlotte Street, the other two travelled Queensland and northern NSW, visiting cafés from Rockhampton to Glen Innes with order books, samples and catalogues.
The Samios Foods way of doing business was quite different from the way Australian businesses operated: it was a work rhythm that entailed bursts of intense activity interspersed with long periods of recreation, and an indistinct boundary between the two. When the travelling salesmen returned to Brisbane, café emblems had to be applied to crockery, silverware and paper goods, and then orders—including Mediterranean foods not available locally—had to be assembled, packed, and shipped back to cafés—which took months. And then it was off to Wellington point, where tents were pitched and Brisbane Greeks gathered to eat and drink and play cards, dance to the music of their homeland, and enjoy seafood fresh from the ocean. Family photos portray a holiday mood, but the relaxed atmosphere was conducive to business, and Frank’s children remember that during these camping episodes, which lasted up to eight weeks, their father was still making connections, still doing business—it’s the Greek way.
Samios Foods manufactured some of the products they supplied, and the processing of mullet roe became a significant aspect of the business. Mullet roe in the form of tarama is an essential part of the Greek diet, and one day, probably during a Wellington Point sojourn, Peter and Frank realised that the quality of the sea mullet in Moreton Bay was comparable with that of the Mediterranean. They began to harvest mullet roe locally and Samios Foods went on to distribute the product internationally, especially in Japan, where smoked roe is a delicacy.
Of all the early Greek businesses established in Brisbane, only Samios Foods remains and, unlike many business-owners, the Zantiotis family takes pains to preserve its history. The family archive contains photographs of the Wellington Point camp, a sample plate with monograms around the edge indicating the designs proprietors might choose, and a ledger with a marbled green cover that has the word BEX scrawled across it. The latter is a priceless record of Greek migrants and the businesses they operated in the 1960s: Cassimatis, Bellas, Crethars, Contoleon, Comino, Psaltis, Castrissos, Marendy, Mageros, Golden Moon Café, Melba Café, Mayfair Milk Bar, Top Hat Snack Bar, Sunshine Café, Liberty Café, Black Cat Café, Peter Pan Café, Railway Café… Other artefacts include a box of flavouring essences, the suitcase that bounced along on the back seat when Samios Foods reps travelled country Queensland, and a device proprietors used for pushing out small cylinders of ice cream to be mounted on sticks and coated with chocolate.
Samios Foods has weathered a great deal of change. When Tickles introduced refrigerated trucks in the mid-1960s, Frank focussed on city customers, and from 1971, when it moved to Woolloongabba, the business opened to the public. Everything is now computerised and modernised, where once Frank knew the price of everything by heart and greeted customers by name as they came through the door. ‘Everything was in his head,’ says his son Theo. Frank’s children have operated from new premises in Coorparoo since 2012, and it’s still a hive of activity. There was a time when people bought olive oil from the chemist, and wouldn’t have dreamed of putting it in their mouths, but interest in ethnic food exploded after 1988, when Expo brought the world to Brisbane, and now two thirds of customers are non-Greek. While Samios Foods still furnishes the needs of cafés and Greek families, its expansive deli—the oldest in Brisbane—popular café, and array of imported and gourmet foods draw people of all backgrounds. Brisbane is now enamoured of the multicultural food landscape that Peter Samios pioneered more than eighty years ago, when he began selling olives and olive oil from a basement in Charlotte Street.