1. The period until the 1950s
1.1 The “cafis”
The first Greek immigrants who settled in Bloemfontein set up businesses known as “cafis”. These were small shops, usually on the street corner, and they were also referred to as “grill rooms”, “steakhouses”, “tea-rooms,” “tyrells” or “restaurants”. There was a counter inside with a till, and the goods were served here. Groceries, cigarettes, fruits and vegetables were arranged on wooden shelves. In Mr H. Savas’s own words, he was the first person who thought of cutting the watermelons in half and putting them in the window of his shop, and he was “doing a roaring trade”.
A gas cooker was operated behind the counter with the till. These shops usually had two or more tables – depending on existing space – where the customers could be seated and enjoy their meal. A number of these stores also provided additional services. The Voudet Tea Room of the Troupos brothers, which – at the turn of the last century – also had a bakery, was open 24 hours a day. Mr Panayiotis Loupos’s Westdene Tyrell began to sell ice-cream to the customers in 1927. Mr Loupos had brought an ice-cream machine, as well as the recipe, to Bloemfontein from the United States of America (USA) after a visit to that country. It seems this was a rare commodity on the local market and people therefore came from far and wide to buy the ice-cream, since he did not supply other shops.
The business hours of these stores were usually from six or seven o’clock in the morning until ten or eleven o’clock at night. The owner would be at his shop from about five o’clock in the morning to start the fire. The staff then began cooking the food the customers would buy for their breakfast. Mornings were therefore busy, as were late afternoons, when the workers came to the stores after work. Some would sit down for dinner and a drink, listening to the music from the jukebox, while others would buy take-aways.
Large supermarkets had not yet been established in Bloemfontein, so people would buy small quantities of groceries, fruit and vegetables for their needs on a regular basis. Furthermore, customers at this time did not need such large quantities of goods as would later be the case. Cakes were another product that “cafis” frequently sold. These cakes were obtained from the bakeries, and then resold. Until the decade of the 1950s this type of shop was allowed to sell any kind of goods in very limited quantities, since the market was still very small.
1.2 The location of the shops
Since the end of the nineteenth century, Bloemfontein had been the centre of the South Africa’s extensive railway system. Four main lines radiated from there, while huge workshops, repair yards, stores and railway offices teemed with workers. In 1928, no fewer than 680 employees responsible for the running and administration of the railway system were stationed in Bloemfontein, while the workshops had a staff complement of 834.
The producers of cattle, wool, maize, dairy products, wheat and fruit came to Bloemfontein to sell their products, and remained to buy their own necessities and luxuries. They set off in their ox-wagons and arrived in the city by one or two o’clock in the morning. They then waited in a “cafi” until the time came to go to the public market. As the number of cars in the city increased in later years, product transportation by car was prohibited. In a bid to boost the railways financially, it was stipulated that goods should be transported exclusively by rail.
The public market was situated near the railway station. “Completed in 1925, it was the last word in airy, sanitary accommodation for the sale of produce, vegetables, meat, etc”. An important part of the business of the market was the wholesale section, where the produce of Free State farmers was sold by public auction.
Thus, the town centre consisted of Maitland Street, beginning at the railway station, passing alongside President Hoffman Square and ending at the junction with President Brand Street. This street, along with the adjoining streets, formed the economic centre of the town. Most of the Greek shops were situated in this area. However, some Greeks also established businesses in other areas such as Westdene, which – together with Brandwag – were the more affluent neighborhoods at the time. The shops in Westdene were also busy due to this area’s proximity to the military base.
1.3 The customers
The clientele of these shops was determined by where they were located, as well as the quality of the products they sold. The vast majority of the clients were whites who frequented these shops to eat the food, which today we would call fast or convenience foods. It must be noted here that restaurants as they are known today were not a common phenomenon in those days. There may have been a restaurant in a hotel, but not as an independent business on a large scale.
The restaurants in the city were predominantly “steak houses”, which offered eggs with sausages, bacon, steak or fish and chips. “These kinds of food were familiar to the locals”. After work, labourers would buy a newspaper, some food and drink and go home to rest. “Cafis” had very few black customers, although certain shops did cater for them. One such shop was established by Mr H. Savas in 1941. He bought animal’s offal and heads from the Municipal Abattoir and sold them cooked to the blacks. Without any doubt, Greeks preferred black customers. Being less fastidious than Europeans, they shopped at the Greek stores, buying half a loaf of bread, some fruit and cigarettes, without asking or complaining about the prices or the quality.
1.4 The staff
These shops were exclusively family businesses. The shopkeeper worked there, along with his wife and often their children as well. From time to time, another Greek who had come to Bloemfontein under the “chain emigration” process (see seminar 2) was also employed. He (and rarely “she”) was usually a relative or a friend the owner could trust.
On occasion, two or three Greeks became partners in business with a view to sharing the work, but this increased the risk of misunderstandings between the partners. Partnerships between a Greek and a local did not come about in this initial period unless he had married a European or a coloured woman, in which case they then both worked at their own business.
Apart from the owners, one or two blacks were also employed in “cafis”, though only to do menial jobs. It was prohibited for non-Europeans to cook the food and serve the customers. Only white people were allowed to do these jobs.
It stands to reason that these first Greek immigrants could not speak English, and Afrikaans even less. This gave rise to many humorous incidents in their dealings with customers. Mr Kasimatis arrived in Bloemfontein in 1929, and initially worked as an employee at his brother’s grillroom. One day a customer ordered scrambled eggs. On the way to the kitchen, Kasimatis forgot the word “scrambled”. The chef, who had already realised what the situation was, teased him by asking: “Did the customer order fried eggs?” “No, no!” “Boiled eggs?” “No, no!” “Chicken eggs, duck eggs?” “No, no!” He purposefully did not mention the elusive word. Finally, Kasimatis – in order to evade the issue – informed the customer that the grill was out of order, but that he would gladly serve him milk and oats!
1.5 The two world war periods
It seems that during the eventful years of World War I the clientele of the Greek shops in Bloemfontein increased, since there were many soldiers in the city on account of the war in South West Africa (1914-1915).
The period of World War II was perhaps not as difficult in Bloemfontein as in other belligerent areas, although it inevitably affected life in the city. Suppliers were allowed to provide the shops with only 45% of their order, since bulk buying was under government control. The shopkeepers therefore did not need to place any orders at all; instead, the suppliers sent them the stated quantity of products every month.
Furthermore, three military airfields had been established in the Bloemfontein region, where many of Polish, Yugoslav and Greek men, as well as men from other nationalities, received training in flying warplanes. These men undoubtedly represented an additional purchasing power for the local market.
The inhabitants of the city had to buy staple commodities such as sugar, rice and bread by using “ration books”. Mrs Dorothy Fatsea distinctly remembers herself as a little girl – she could hardly see over the shop’s counter – going with her mother and her three sisters to buy some sugar. They tried to trick the saleswoman by going in separately with a view to getting as much sugar as possible, until they were eventually caught. Due to their poor diet, many of the children developed skin rashes. Despite all these hardships, however, the city’s inhabitants regularly went out for dinner and to the cinema, having a good time until one or two in the morning and keeping the “cafis” very busy. “People wished to do themselves proud during a war period”, they said.
1.6 Why the Greek immigrants were occupied with “cafis”
All the Greek pioneering immigrants in Bloemfontein were involved in the “cafis” business. The only exception to the rule was Mr Panayiotis Repanis from Plomari, Lesvos, who went in for brick production at the beginning of the twentieth century. He once said to his godson, Dimitris Tarnanis, while pointing at the National Hospital: “This building has my name thousands of times written on it.” He was one of the material suppliers during the erection of the building; however, he also soon turned to the grillroom business.
The following reasons can be pointed out for the popularity of this particular occupation among the Greeks:
A. All the immigrants originated from agricultural regions of Greece, and therefore had no other skills. In addition, these peasants did not receive any social help from friends or locals.
B. They did not like being in an employer-employee relationship at all, and wished to become owners of their own businesses. It was easy enough to run these little shops without high operational cost if you were willing to put in a lot of personal work and were assisted by family members.
C. It was a sure and quick way to make a good profit.
Conditions were propitious for running this kind of shop; on the other hand, the majority of the Greeks at that time believed that they would work hard for five or ten years, securing a large amount of capital, and then return to their fatherland. However, this dream came true for only a very small number of them, despite the fact that “cafis” could be very lucrative. Manolis Kolovos’s story is a case in point. He reached Bloemfontein in 1908, and – after twelve years – decided to return home in 1920, having accumulated some 10 000 sovereigns. It was a fabulous sum for those years; unfortunately, he never got the chance to enjoy it. He died in Port Said of a heart attack.
2. The period from 1960 onwards
2.1 The new migratory wave
By the end of the 1950s, the immigrant flow from Greece to South Africa began to increase – in fact, the years from 1955 to 1970 were known as the “Great Immigration Years”. Numerous new immigrants arrived in Bloemfontein, which – from an economic and social point of view – caused much confusion. The newcomers were poor, unskilled people invited by a friend or relative who offered them a job in South Africa, as was required by law. Nevertheless, they were young, productive people who were willing to work hard. Thus, they immediately started work in the “cafi” of one of the older Greeks, until they were able to acquire their own shop. This – without any known exception – was the path all the Greek immigrants in Bloemfontein took.
Furthermore, it appears that it was easier to get rich quickly in a small town than in a big city. Perhaps there was already a glut in the market for this type of shop in the big cities by this time. In any event, it is a fact that a few immigrants first tried their luck in Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban before they were drawn to Bloemfontein.
2.2 The “new” businesses
The new Greeks created shops in the same style as the old ones, but restrictions had now been imposed regarding the commodities they could sell. They were no longer allowed to be general dealers. It was stipulated that each store should sell only one type of commodity, such as groceries or fruit and vegetables, etc. Their main object therefore remained the grill, and also the selling of cakes.
In later years, after 1970, the Greeks of Bloemfontein began to invest significant capital amounts in their businesses. At that time, Philip Kridiotis established two supermarkets modelled on those in the USA, followed by H. Savas and S. Tyranis. Greeks began to set up businesses of another nature, such as bakeries, butcheries, fast food outlets, laundries, hardware stores, etc. Others established so-called convenience stores or corner shops, where one could find various indispensable articles after normal business hours.
It is not surprising that, after 1970, the Greeks in Bloemfontein gradually abandoned the “cafis” and began switching over to new lines of business. The keen competition from the supermarkets and the department stores that flooded the market caused business to slacken in the small shops. They had to find another solution. Moreover, the vast majority of the children of older immigrants had been educated. As the then Chairman of the Community stated in an interview with the newspaper The Friend: At that time there were Greeks in Bloemfontein “working as doctors, attorneys, electrical engineers, civil engineers, etc. South African-born Greeks are not interested in cafés and supermarkets. They are going into professions like other South Africans. They are people in all walks of life.”
For the duration of the previous phase, almost all the additional working profits had been sent to Greece. After 1970, however, Greeks began to invest money in Bloemfontein, turning mainly to buildings – “for their own peace of mind, because you never know”. Events in Cyprus played an important role in this shift in attitude. Many Greek Cypriots had invested a great deal of money in the island. After the Turkish invasion of 1974 all the Greeks in Northern Cyprus lost their property, with no apparent hope of ever getting it back. The ensuing strained relations between Greece and Turkey must have convinced the Greeks abroad to exercise greater caution regarding capital investment in their homeland.
The recent migration current, as well as the resourcefulness of the Greeks, led to the development of a “new” type of profession. Certain Greeks would buy shops at low prices, renovate them and then sell or lease them to newcomers, who paid by instalments. If the instalments were not paid regularly, the owner repossessed the shop with a view to selling it to someone else. Thus, the present Chairman of the Community (Nikos Georgiou) began his career, which would ultimately lead to the creation of a huge business establishment.