Showing posts with label Newcastle Greeks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Newcastle Greeks. Show all posts

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Nina's IGA - Family Kiriakidis

If you walk into Nina’s IGA expecting a one-size-fits-all suburban grocery, be ready to be surprised. Nina’s is anything but average.

When I came to live in Hamilton, and visited IGA, I was fascinated by the products I found. Lentils and other pulses were clearly visible at eye level, not hidden away on a bottom shelf. Fetta cheese came in the biggest buckets I had ever seen, but it had also been decanted into smaller tubs just the right size for me. I spotted luscious home made fig jam, European style biscuits and breads, ‘square’ noodles, filo pastry, and puzzled over long stems of dried Mountain Tea. As well, all the standard Australian staples are stocked.

An eclectic mix of products from many countries at Nina’s IGA products
Photograph by Craig Smith

Over 27 years, George and Nina Kiriakidis have shaped this little store to reflect their customers’ wishes. They cater to the evolving tastes of locals, as well as to the desire of Hamilton’s migrant families to continue to enjoy the foods of their homelands. They have seen off their only real Hamilton competition, Clancy’s. By continually adapting and providing exceptional customer service, Nina’s IGA offers a friendly alternative to the giant supermarket chains.

Nina’s IGA, with a reminder of the devastation of the 2007 floods 
Photograph by Craig Smith (2014)

George is first generation Greek Australian. His parents Constantine and Sofia Kiriakidis were from the town of Katerini, near Thessalonika, in Central Macedonia, Greece. When they decided to flee the instability of civil war, they were already married with a small son, Leo. The year was 1954.

They knew nothing about Australia,’ explains George. ‘They thought it was the name of a village’.

What a surprise they must have had, landing in Sydney, travelling north  and finding themselves at the Greta Migrant Centre. Greta is a coalmining town on the New England Highway, between Maitland and Singleton. The Migrant Centre was positioned to provide a ready source of migrant labourers to the mines and related industries of the Hunter.

The small family moved from the Migrant Centre to Newcastle, where they lived with a Polish family in Maryville for a few months. Constantine’s father had given him a parting gift of the equivalent of 500 pounds. While some of it had been ‘loaned’ to a ship board friend in need, Constantine still had enough to buy a house in Tighes Hill. Once settled, they rented rooms out to other migrant families.

Constantine and Sofia intended to return home when the unrest had settled. That never happened. Instead, Constantine worked at BHP and they raised a family of four sons – Leo, George, Jordan and Chris.

(L-R) Leo, Jordan, George, with Chris between parents
Constantine and Sofia Kiriakidis
Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

Sofia’s father had been a teacher. George feels her education enabled her to adjust more readily to speaking English. Sociable and outgoing, mixing easily with his peers, George seems not to have been aware of any discrimination at school or growing up.

Like so many young Newcastle men of his time, George followed his father into BHP. He gained technical qualifications as a mechanical engineer.

George had encountered tragedy in his twenties, losing his fiancé, and then his best friend to cancer, and his godfather, all in a short space of time. He’d known Nina from when she was 16, and on their first meeting, felt an instant attraction to her.

Towards the end of a dozen years at BHP, George was finding the large organisation impersonal and became interested in giving business a try. With Nina, his first venture was a snow ski shop at Marketown in Newcastle West. So began their journey into the world of small business.

Already Nina had a maturity beyond her years. Her father Spiro Zambelis had died when she was just one year old, leaving her mother Eleni to bring up Nina and her older brother Dennis alone. Nina’s parents had migrated to Australia in 1960 from the island of Ithaca, in the Ionian Sea off the coast of Greece. They settled in Hamilton.

Spiro Zambelis
 Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

Eleni Zambelis
 Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

Nina’s mother did unskilled work to support her family, and spoke Greek with her children at home. Consequently Nina began school knowing very little English. This affected the confidence of a shy and sensitive little girl who already was taking on responsibilities beyond her years.
George remembers exactly when they bought the ‘Cut Price’ grocery store from the Watsons at 73 Beaumont Street, Hamilton – later to become Nina’s IGA.

‘7 February, 1987’, he says.

George was 31, Nina still a teenager at 19.

George and Nina quickly realised that if their business was to succeed, they would have to do something different. Trading hours were being gradually deregulated in NSW, especially for smaller retailers. To stand out from the competition, George and Nina decided to open the shop from 8 am to 10 pm, 7 days a week. This was an enormous commitment. George’s brothers Chris and Jordan became involved, and staff were employed to help cover the long shifts. George took responsibility for the business side, including purchasing, and Nina managed the floor.

Brothers Kiriakidis (L-R) Jordan, Leo, George, Chris in front (1972)
Personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

With no prior experience in the grocery business, they learned by trial and error. ‘Cut Price’ had purchasing systems in place, and at first, George and Nina followed past practice.

In the 1990s, their confidence grew as they responded to customer needs, and developed a wider range of suppliers. Customers wrote down their specific requests in a book Nina kept on the counter.

The range of foods and flavours expanded from those of Greece to include Italy, Croatia, Cyprus, Lebanon and Egypt. There are jars of Ajvar, a hot roasted pepper spread favoured by Greeks; Cortas hummus from Lebanon; Minos giant beans from Greece; Franck Jubilana coffee from Croatia; Strianese tomato sauces from Italy; and long slender sprigs of dried oregano.

Food to fascinate in Nina’s IGA (2014)
 Photograph by Craig Smith

On Thursday, 28 December 1989 George and Nina were awaiting the arrival of the first child. Like many a firstborn, the babe was overdue. George was already in the office at the shop, and Nina was on her way. George remembers a man coming in and asking to use the toilet. The next thing he knew was the building shaking...Absolute chaos ensued as shelves broke and products tumbled in all directions onto the floor.

Is chaos the word?

Photograph from the personal collection of
George and Nina Kiriakidis

Ceiling collapsed onto the dairy cabinet
Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

George still wonders what happened to the man in their toilet.

Nina's Cut Price in Beaumont Street, Hamilton, 1990
Photograph from the personal collection of George and Nina Kiriakidis

George and Nina’s daughter Sofia – named for George’s mother and known as Sofie - was born in the Waratah Hospital. Nina was sent home promptly as a safety precaution. That afternoon, she was serving coffee at home to 30 well wishers.

Some Beaumont Street businesses remained closed for up to 3 months after the earthquake. George and Nina were one of the few business operators insured for loss of profits. Nina enjoyed an unexpected maternity leave with her new baby. Soon though, she was back at work, with Sofie never far from her side.

Once back on their feet after the earthquake, in 1991 George and Nina purchased the building in which Nina’s operated.

The following year, interest rates soared. This was a time of financial pressures for many, and the Kiriakidis family was no exception.

George speaks of the great respect he has for their business.

'The business is our boss’, he explains.

We all work hard for it. We try to be complete within ourselves – efficient, clean, providing a great service’.

In 1992 their second daughter, Eleni, was born. Eleni was named for Nina’s mother.

Nina gradually stopped going into the shop, as she struggled with her health and sense of well being. Certainly, the years of long hours at the shop took their toll. Nina’s strong work ethic, her personal style and responsiveness to customers meant that, in George’s words, ‘Nina was three people’.

‘I knew everyone, what they wanted’, says Nina. ‘If they smoked a particular brand of cigarettes, the pack would be on the counter waiting for them when they came through’.

Nina’s warm, friendly style draws people to her. Perhaps it was inevitable that this sensitive young woman who loves quiet, creative pursuits would need time out from the constant exposure to people demanded by long hours of retail business. For George, interacting with others energises him; it is his lifeblood and he thrives on it.
In her 8th year, Eleni developed a cold that quickly became something much more sinister – meningococcal disease.
‘Eleni was a bit of a tomboy’, says Nina. ‘She wasn’t one to complain. I’d taken her to the doctor, and was sent home with a diagnosis of flu’.

Nina goes on to tell how she’d later taken Eleni to hospital, but no one seemed to be taking the case seriously. She’d begged staff to ‘at least monitor Eleni’s headaches’. When Eleni began screaming, they all watched in terror as lesions started appearing on her arms.

A lumbar puncture followed, and the doctor warned George and Nina that if Eleni survived, she would suffer brain damage. Their daughter slipped into a coma. She was administered massive doses of antibiotics. Two weeks passed before she came out of the coma.

Miraculously, Eleni made a full recovery. Today, she’s the competent, businesslike  manager of Nina’s IGA and is planning her upcoming wedding.

Fate hadn’t finished with Eleni.

George left home in the winter darkness at 5 am on Thursday 18 August, 2005. Securing the house, he left Nina and their two daughters sleeping peacefully.

He was driving to Sydney to pick up supplies for the business. Normally his brother Jordan did this run every three weeks; it was an unusually early start for George. After picking up a staff member, the two men were on their way.

Just before 7 am, near Strathfield, George’s mobile phone rang. He didn’t get to it in time, but saw that it was Eleni, now 13 and a high school student. He called her back.

‘What are you doing up?’ he asked.

‘There’s a man here and he wants some money’.

George couldn’t work this out. Did Eleni need money for a school excursion?

A man came on the phone, speaking calmly and in a typical Australian accent.

‘I’ve got your daughter. I want money’.

George sprang into action. He ended the call, phoned his brother Chris and sent him to check on Nina and the girls. Chris found Eleni gone.

The police were called, and a cordon quickly thrown up around all of Newcastle’s exit points. Within three hours, Eleni was found, and safe.

It had been a shocking ordeal. Yet Eleni remained calm and acted with courage and common sense throughout. She’d been woken about 5.30 am by a young man who threatened her with a blood-filled syringe unless she gave him money. Taking two laptop computers, a handbag and car keys, he bundled Eleni out the window and into the family car. She’d had to show him how to operate the controls before the man drove them to various ATMs to try to withdraw cash using stolen credit cards.

The end came at a Bolton Point address, where the man had gone to either buy drugs or dispose of stolen goods. A woman saw the young girl sitting in the car, became suspicious and got her out on the pretext of a cup of tea. She then took Eleni to Argenton’s Club Macquarie, where they contacted police.

In an interview with The Herald [1] George says:

‘I knew she was a strong girl. I knew her personality and the way she deals with things. I am very proud of her’.

At the time, Eleni could not be named by the media for legal reasons. She told the same interviewer:

‘I wasn’t stressing or anything; I was helping him so he didn’t get upset’.

When the perpetrator was finally brought to court, he was charged with aggravated break, enter and steal; kidnapping; and aggravated indecent assault. He was sentenced to over 11 years imprisonment.

These headlines shocked Novocastrians buying
their morning papers

The Kiriakidis family is Greek Orthodox. George and Nina make no secret of the pivotal part their personal spiritual practice plays in their lives. Whatever challenges life brings them, their faith is their anchor.

Altar in the Church of the Holy Apostles, Hamilton
Palm Sunday (2014)

What lies ahead for Nina’s IGA?

Nina is back at the shop on a part time basis. Sofie has completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in film and cultural studies, and helps out. Eleni is making her mark as the next generation of food retailers, reflecting changing customer preferences for fresh, healthy food. She sees value in differentiating further by stocking more organic, vegan and locally produced products. She points to Over the Moon milk – ‘real milk, non homogenised from Jersey cows, with visible cream on top’ – just how it used to be.

Back to the future and Over the Moon

Stall holders from the Olive Tree and Farmers markets are beginning to seek more mainstream outlets like Nina’s IGA for their boutique products. Soon, we can expect to find goat’s milk, macaroons and luscious Sugar Jones handmade desserts - a work of art in themselves - on Nina’s shelves.

Sugar Jones Desserts
Photograph by Eleni Kiriakidis

For George, who is working on replacing the extensive picket fence around his home, keeping an eye on the business and thinking about his next travel adventure, family is everything. He is fiercely protective. The picket fence might be an outward symbol of this. But the bastion that will keep this family safe whatever life throws at it in the future is not an external one. It is this family’s faith, and their deep, visible commitment to one another.

(L-R) Sofie, Eleni, Nina and George Kiriakidis (2014)


My thanks to George, Nina, Sofie and Eleni Kiriakidis for sharing their story, and to Father Nicholas Skordilis for allowing photographs inside the Church of the Holy Apostles, Hamilton.

Palm Sunday in the Church of the Holy Apostles, Hamilton (2014)

[1] The Herald, 19/8/2005, ‘Girl in kidnap drama’, 1.