Busy Bee given second chance
Loula Zantiotis (nee Cassimatis) at the Busy Bee Cafe in 2002.
Photos: Effy Alexakis, from the ‘In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians’ National Project Archives
In a special five year commitment, the National Museum of Australia will permanently house a Greek Café collection, with original furnishings and fixtures.
Based on photographer Effy Alexakis and historian Leonard Janiszewski work to identify remaining Greek cafés and café memorabilia of national significance around the country in 2007-8, the museum has taken the next step and invested in a permanent collection.
Now, after its highly popular Selling an American Dream: Australia’s Greek Café, the museum has sourced genuine interior furnishings, signage and cafe ware surviving from the Greek caf� heyday in the 1950s and ’60s.
One in particular, the Busy Bee Cafe owned by the Zantiotis family, will be the main attraction. Only closing in 2012, the cafe will live on in the exhibition, entitled Lambros Zantiotis’s Men.
Joanne Bach, the National Museum curator overseeing the display, is excited to have seen the project through to its realisation.
“The exhibit will feature objects acquired from the Busy Bee Café in Gunnedah,” she says. “It will be displayed in our ‘Journeys: Australia’s connections with the World’ gallery. Personally, it’s been very satisfying to develop the exhibit, having done the work on acquiring the collection. It’s not often that we [curators] get to see a collection through in that way.”
The Busy Bee at Gunnedah was one of a limited number of classic Greek cafés that survived almost intact, and is a fine example of early, angular Art Deco design.
It appears to have been the first café outfitted by renowned Greek shop-fitter, Stephen C. Varvaressos.
Members of the Zantiotis family operated the Busy Bee from the mid-1910s through to 2007 when Loula (Theodora) Zantiotis (nee Cassimatis) finally retired and the business was briefly sold to the Faint family.
In 2002, when Alexakis and Janiszewski interviewed Loula Zantiotis, she believed the Busy Bee’s days were numbered.
“About 30 to 40 Greeks were here [in Gunnedah] in 1955. Most of them had cafés. The White Rose, one block down from the Busy Bee. The Monterey, across from the White Rose. The Acropolis, further down the block,” she remembers.
“Now, only three to four Greek families live here… All the kids [my children] have gone. I’m the only person from my family here – I’m lonely at times… I don’t know really what to do… I’m not staying here for business… it [the café] is more my home.”
The exhibition is set to open in early October, and will run for five years. Call (02) 6208 5000 for more information.
LOULA Zantiotis, at age 71, still runs the Busy Bee Cafe, (mid 2004), although on a much smaller scale than its heyday. Life-long customers have become old friends and visitors are made welcome with traditional Greek hospitality.
GUNNEDAH’S Busy Bee Cafe is one of few traditional Greek cafes that remained unchanged in an age when technology galloped away with old memories held dear by a generation of baby boomers.
Since the death of her husband Peter in 1996, 71-one-year-old Loula Zantiotis has continued to run the Busy Bee –
although on a much smaller scale – and she is not sure for how much longer she can keep her beloved cafe open.
[For Loula and Peter’s Kytherian background see entries under People, subsection Nicknames. See another article on Loula by the Newcastle Herald in this section.
Loula has a positive and vibrant style which I find particularly endearing.
I thank her for providing me with this and other information, and for permission to re-print, and to photograph extensively.]
“This is the only life I know and it is very hard to let it go,” she said.
“This is also my home and I enjoy talking with customers and friends who drop in,” said Loula.
Growing up in Gunnedah in the post-war era was a time when the Greek cafe thrived and the taste of thick milkshakes, orange freezes and toasted sandwiches was a way of life.
Although early history is sketchy, it is believed the Busy Bee Cafe was built in 1914 as part of the Doolan buildings, with the tea-rooms accessible via an archway through the shop next door, leading to the Grand Central Hotel.
According to a 1926 newspaper advertisement, early proprietors of the Busy Bee, Jim and Andrew Zantiotis, also known as Zantos, sold “choice confectionery, choicest fruits in season, pastry, small goods, soft drinks and hot pies, with meals at all hours and late suppers.”
Lambros Zantiotis bought the Busy Bee in the early 1930s and was joined by his son Peter on March 15, 1936, from the Greek island of Kythera in the Ionian Sea. He had come out to Australia on his own as a 12-year-old, with his mother Anastasia and sisters joining the family after the war.
As Gunnedah emerged from the Great Depression, Lambros Zantiotis hired cafe interior designer, Stephen Varvaressos, to install its glamourous art-deco fittings which remain virtually unchanged.
While other Greek cafes in Gunnedah were modernised and altered to cater for a changing generation, the Busy Bee Cafe stayed the same with Peter Zantiotis resisting the urge to install a deep fryer and stove for takeaways at the front of the shop.
Lambros Zantiotis died suddenly in 1953 on a trip to Port Macquarie – his first holiday for many years.
Devastated by the loss of his father, workmate and friend, Peter Zantiotis returned to Greece for the first time since his arrival in Australia.
Meanwhile, his future bride, Theodora (Loula), had migrated to Australia to join her brother and sister at Katoomba, in November, 1954.
Born in 1932 on the Greek island of Kythera, between Pelponis and Crete, Loula had been staying with a relative in Sydney when she met the young Peter Zantiotis at an Easter dance in Paddington Town Hall.
After a whirlwind romance, the couple married in Sydney in 1955 and Peter Zantiotis brought his young bride to Gunnedah, where life revolved around the Busy Bee and later their three children Anastasia (Tessie), Lambrous James (Jim) and Emmanuel Nicholas (Manny).
Unable to speak English, Loula found life in Australia very different to anything she had experienced in her homeland.
“It wasn’t just the language, it was the whole way of life,” said Loula.
“We formed friendships with other Greek families and we would get together every Sunday night in one of the cafes.”
Although life outside the Busy Bee was virtually non-existent, the Greek families made regular trips to Tamworth to attend the Greek Orthodox Church.
The Busy Bee Cafe, in its heyday, employed six people, including a cook, kitchen hands and waiters and opened seven days a week from 7am to 11.30pm.
With easy access to the Grand Central Hotel, the Busy Bee was a stopping-off place for country people, with Mum and the kids dropping in for a refreshing drink while Dad quenched his thirst with the amber liquid next door.
A 1938 menu boasts a tempting range of hot dishes and grills, with “personal attention given.”
Curiously, customers could dine on rump steak eggs and chips for the same cost as scrambled eggs and toast, which attracted a charge of one shilling and nine pence – less than 20 cents in today’s money.
When Peter Zantiotis died on March 6, 1996, Loula had to take over the management of the Busy Bee and with the support of family and friends she has continued to provide that same friendly service.
“I made quite a few mistakes but people have always been there to help, including my bank and accountant,” she said.
The uniqueness of the Busy Bee Cafe has also attracted interest from Sydney’s Power House Museum, which recently captured the cafe’s interior on film.
Historian Lenny Janiszewski (see entries, this section or use the search engine under “Janiszewski”) has also taken great interest in the Busy Bee Cafe, which will enter the pages of Greek-Australian history when he completes his research on Greek cafes.
Janiszewski was recently awarded a $20,000 NSW History Fellowship to continue his 20-year odyssey to chronicle Greek-Australian history through Greek eyes.
According to the Macquarie University historian, oyster saloons, established at the end of the 19th century, were the foundation on which Greek cafes were built with migrants from the island of Kythera eventually spreading to every corner of the state.
“The investment in cafes was driven, at least in part, because Greeks were not permitted on factory floors in large numbers until after World War 2,” he said.
ning to and documenting the stories of Greek-Australians for the past 20 years, including Loula Zantiotis, and the fellowship will allow him to record and explore the personal accounts of scores of cafe proprietors and workers.
Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis have combined their talents to produce an exhibition at the State Library in Sydney, featuring black and white photographs which depict many facets of Greek Australians under the title In Their Own Image: Greek Australians.
The photographs are collected in a stunning book which has been published to complement the photographic exhibition.
In Their Own Image captures the stories, the successes, the conflicts and the previously unrecognised diversity of Australia’s Greek migration and settlement.
From the arrival in Australia of seven Greek convicts in 1829 to the present day, says Janiszewski, Greek-Australians have played a vital part in the development and unique culture of their adopted country.
Today the Busy Bee Cafe stands as a solid testament to the hard-working Greeks who left their homeland in search of a better life and established tens of hundreds of cafes across Australia.
The flood of fast-food outlets like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken is threatening the very existence of Greek cafes and with the exodus of young Australian-born Greeks to the coastal fringes, a tradition held dear by many Australians in country towns is being lost.
Loula and Peter Zantiotis worked long and hard in the Busy Bee Cafe to give their children an alternative to cafe life and the young ones have chosen paths far removed from their childhood.
Tessie (Dowes) works in an employment office in Sydney while Manny also lives in Sydney and works as a computer technician.
Jim Zantiotis is a school counsellor in Wagga Wagga and the father of Loula’s three grandsons, Zacharay, Alex and Nicholas.
On Australia Day 1997, Loula Zantiotis accepted a citation from Mayor Noel O’Brien, which paid tribute to the hard-working Greek-Australian, Peter Zantiotis, who “contributed greatly to Gunnedah’s social and cultural history, as a warm and generous representative of his ancestry and a proud Australian.”