In the early twentieth century, people from Kastellorizo, Crete, Ithaca, Cyprus, Lemnos, Kythera and Asia Minor found themselves behind shop counters in Brisbane. Turkey’s persecution of Greeks in Asia Minor, culminating in large-scale expulsion after the burning of Smyrna in September 1922, sent many refugees to Australia, and America, in search of a better life. John (Yiannis) and Steven (Stavros) Girdis left Alatsata in Asia Minor in 1905, before they reached the age of compulsory enlistment in the Ottoman army. A college graduate, Steven’s life in Australia began in Melbourne, where he worked for 5/- (50c) a week.
By 1913 John Girdis was proprietor of the Central Coffee Palace at 374 George Street (Turbot Street corner), where a three-course meal cost 6d. This rose to 9d in 1916, a shilling on Sundays, and for another shilling customers could secure a bed for the night. A photograph of this shop depicts a large space with white tablecloths and bentwood chairs, fans and electric lights, and waitresses in dark blouses and long white aprons. By 1914 John also had the A1 Fruit Mart at 386 George Street. It is likely that John, his brother Steven and their cousin Jack Lathouras were in partnership in these shops. Around 1918 the Girdis brothers sold their interest in the Coffee Palace to Jack and started trading in the New York Sundae Shop in Fortitude Valley. By 1919 the Girdis family also had the Café Britannic at 111 Queen Street. Younger brothers George and Mark also worked in these shops but around 1920 Mark and John went into separate cafés in Toowoomba, leaving Steven and George in Brisbane.
The New York Sundae Shop was opposite Melba Pictures in Wickham Street. In addition to the latest American fountain drinks, it sold icy delicacies like Jubilee Jelly & Cream and Oriental Nut Sundaes, and was among the first cafés to introduce sundaes in Brisbane. By 1922 homemade pies and cakes were on the menu. As indicated by the name of the shop, and that of the American Bar and Ice Cream Parlour around the corner, American food was infiltrating Australia through Greek cafés, and a particular American favourite was about to arrive. In 1923 American Doughnuts were ‘the talk of the town’ and the Girdis proprietors urged customers to view their array and try a couple with a cup of coffee. Their doughnuts were also available at the Café Britannic and the Canberra Sundae Shop—another family enterprise, also in Queen Street. These shops were among the first to sell doughnuts in Brisbane. At that time the New York Sundae Shop also offered take-home ice cream in one-, two- and three-shilling boxes, which customers were advised would stay cold for two hours. Advertising from 1932 featured an electric oven: cakes were made on the premises from the best ingredients and housewives were invited to come and see them being made. Sponges were only sixpence. Why bother making your own?
The shop seems to have been renamed the Melba Café around 1932. A photograph from 1937 shows a Neon arch across the back wall, fold-up stools along the bar and, on the counter, a magnificent soda fountain with four glass shades and multiple draft arms. The floor is Linoleum, a stylish geometric pattern. Cakes are arrayed in a glass cabinet on left, with confectionery on the right, and Steven stands behind the milk bar.
In a later photograph two local waitresses stand with Steven while George waves from the back. A Horlicks clock dominates the back wall. The photograph indicates that the soda fountain has been ‘modernised’ and the barstools removed. Cubicles have been fitted on the opposite wall. Steven ran the shop until he retired in the early 1960s—half a century in the café business. George’s son had it for a few years after that. But the next generation had bigger fish to fry.
Steven’s second son, Dr Nicholas Girdis CBE, is a prime example. Nicholas was born in Brisbane in 1926. As a child of Greek migrants, he had his share of ‘roughing up’ at school but he believes that being good at sport—he was football captain and athletics captain—made a difference. In 1943 Nick became the first School Captain of non-British heritage at Brisbane State High School. After serving as lieutenant during WW11, he graduated from the University of Queensland and had a dental practice from 1951 to 1968. Nick has been in property development since 1958 and now has over 100 development projects under his belt, including Dockside, a project involving a marina, a hotel and home units at Kangaroo Point. A boating enthusiast, Nick won the New York Yacht Club Trophy in 1979 and was Commodore of the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron (1979-1981). He was awarded life membership in 1984. And that’s just the highlights.
Childhood memories of working in the shop dance though Nick’s account of the Melba Café: his father making rocky road; his uncle’s fingers crimping the edges of the pies; the brothers having to close the doors during the War years, especially on Sundays, because they had run out of everything. George was generally in charge of baking but on Saturday mornings Nick made the cakes. In fact, except for sporting fixtures, Nick worked all weekend every weekend until about 10pm—other than that one time when Steven let him off early because he had concussion after a football match. At 91, Nick Girdis doesn’t appear to be slowing up. His is a lifetime of activity and philanthropy that stems, perhaps, from his father’s deeply-implanted instruction: This is your country; you must serve this country. A dictum that began, for Nick Girdis, with the Melba Café.