Numerous Greek cafés operated in Edward Street during the first half of the twentieth century including Natt’s Café at number 161, the Kewpie Café at 194, the Strand Café, later called the Kosciusko Café, at 217, the City Café, later the Astoria, near Adelaide Street, Edward Café near Elizabeth Street, a café at 183 owned by Theo and Maude Andronicos, and Ellisos at 242 Edward Street. Some were significant enterprises: when Charles Cheros (Tsiros) opened Ellisos around 1913, the shop was so successful that six months later he opened the Garden of Roses next door, and then the Continental next door to that, an operation that cost £12,000, employed 80 staff, consumed £3,000 worth of materials per year, and served 20,000 customer a week. The extent to which Greeks dominated Brisbane’s café industry is evident in a letter Theo Andronicos wrote to the Daily Standard in 1925, in which he refers to Brisbane’s “70 odd” Greek cafés.
According to the Trades and Labour Council, there were 72 Greek cafes in the metropolitan area that year (Christy Freeleagus), and these played key roles in industrial awards and disputes. Christy Freeleagus, a major employer of Greek migrant labour, was involved in determining award provisions when the Brisbane Hotel, Club, and Restaurant Employees Board was established in 1912. Six years later, 39 Cheros employees went out on strike after three waitresses were dismissed, and the following year a strike at the Ithaca Café was associated with proprietors finding pretexts to sack employees who had joined unions. Theo’s letter of 1925 was written in response to claims by the Daily Standard that Greek employees worked a 96-hour week, without a full day off, after which Greek proprietors forced them to indicate adherence to award rates and conditions in time and wages books (26.8.25). Theo was angered that the paper incriminated Greeks as a whole, although he admitted that perhaps four of the 70 proprietors exploited employees. Theo understood how the system worked.
The Comino brothers established a pattern of sponsorship and chain migration through their shop in Oxford Street, Sydney, which opened in 1878. Sponsors paid migrant passages and then provided employment that commonly included food and accommodation, enabling newcomers to learn the café trade and set up similar businesses, often with the help of sponsors. Theo Andronicos was employed by the Cominos when he arrived in Sydney in 1897, aged sixteen. He then worked in several country towns in New South Wales before owning the Edward Street shop. The Cominos sponsored Christy Freeleagus, in 1901, when he was twelve, and Freeleagus Bros went on to play, in Brisbane, a role similar to that of the Cominos in Sydney. While Denis Conomos explains that cheap labour played a large part in the expansion of the Comino business (81), the Standard asserted that Greeks lured migrants to Australia and then compelled them, through fear of blacklisting and starvation, to endure a life of slavery.
While some migrant accounts describe slave-like conditions, many proprietors worked a lifetime of long days in which they demanded no less from employees than they gave themselves. Theo Castrisos landed in Wangaratta in 1939: “I had to go to my cousin to work for him in his café—and believe me when I started there I worked from 7 o’clock in the morning to 12.00 at night. I went to bed at 1 o’clock—seven days a week—and I would get £1 per week. Scrubbing floors and washing dishes because I couldn’t speak English, and believe me I cried . . . I’m not ashamed to say.” Conditions were especially bleak prior to 1920, when teenage boys worked 18-hour days that started at the fish markets at 3am and, after shucking oysters in dank cellars, ended with fitful sleep on café tables with vermin crawling around them (Conomos 84). Peter Feros started with the Freeleagus brothers at the Paris Café in 1914. He slept on hay with the horses in the stable at a South Brisbane premises where the Freeleaguses housed employees, and received no wages until he had paid off his fare, a period of at least three months. Despite this, Feros said, “I won’t hear anything against the Freeleaguses. They offered us refuge. Don’t think it was an easy task. They were heroes” (Conomos 123). And Theo Castrisos adds, “I don’t say [my cousin] was hard on me for those were the conditions for everyone.”
Many Greek food businesses flourished—and, doubtless, some exploited employees to do so—but others were like Theo and Maude Andronicos. The couple married in 1914. They opened a fish shop in Stanley Street, South Brisbane, and then a mixed business near the Paddington Theatre on Given Terrace. In 1923 they leased the café in Edward Street, where Maude attended to customers while Theo did the cooking. Their daughter Rene was born in the residence behind the Paddington shop in 1919. When Rene reached school age, she took the tram into the city with her parents and, until it was time to head off to school, watched her mother open the Silvo and clean silverware in the dining room of the Edward Street café while her father lit the burners on the gas cooker in the kitchen and set about mixing batter for the fish. Rene published a memoir at the age of 95. Here she gives an evocative description of cafés of the period: on a sideboard at the entrance an enormous bowl of rainbow-coloured paper roses greeted customers as they stepped through the door; beside a large mirror on the wall above the sideboard, pegs awaited gentlemen’s hats and coats; diamond-shaped mirrors studded panelled walls, and bentwood chairs, gleaming with varnish, huddled around marble-topped wooden tables; silver cruets, which held black sauce, vinegar, and salt and pepper, sat on freshly-starched white cloths alongside glass water jugs that were covered with net doilies trimmed with glass beads (12-13). Rene returned to the shop after school and, when they closed around seven each night, she and her parents caught a tram from the stop near the Astoria Café on the Adelaide Street corner and made their way home to Hale Street. Theo and Maude lost this shop in 1929 after Theo was forced into bankruptcy. They never found their feet again. It is more likely to be second and third generations who enjoy the fruits of the labour that built Greek cafés.
Rene Andronicos. Maudie . . . Put the Record On. Brisbane, 2013
Theo Castrisos. Ross Johnson Interviews: Box 17731 Folder 1
Denis A. Conomos. The Greeks in Queensland: A History from 1859—1945. Brisbane, 2002
Daily Standard. “96 Hours per Week” 30.7.25 (6)
Daily Standard. “The Scandal of Greek Slavery” 12.8.25 (1)
Christy Freeleagus. “Greek Consul on Cafés Exposure” Daily Standard 21.8.25 (1)
Theo Andronicus. “Greek Cafe Scandal” Daily Standard. 26.8.25 (10)
Daily Standard. “Waitresses Strike” 16.5.18 (6)
Brisbane Courier. “Besieged Café” 27.5.18 (6)
Daily Mail. “The Café Dispute” 28.5.18 (4)