Elias scanned the platform as the sound of an approaching train sang down the line. Passengers rose from timber benches. Others burst up the stairs from the street below. The Deftereos family had mortgaged their holding in Ithaca to send Elias to Australia in search of his older brother Vasili. At last report, he was selling peanuts from a bicycle at South Brisbane Railway Station. It was 1909. His brother had been gone for four years. If he wasn’t here, Elias didn’t know where else to look.
The train squealed on the rails. As steam cleared and passengers surged around him, between the crush of bodies, Elias glimpsed a figure bent over a vendor’s cart.
‘Vasili,’ he called, elbowing his way through the crowd, and suddenly, there was his brother, scooping peanuts into a cone of brown paper. Elias gripped his shoulder but Vasili shrugged him off – the train’s arrival was a prime opportunity to sell peanuts. Then Vasili recognised his brother and the pair fell into each other’s arms.
Around 1913, the brothers leased a shop at 217 Edward Street. They operated originally as the Strand Cafe and, later, as the Kosciusko Cafe. Ice cream sundaes, malted milks, and leg ham sandwiches were popular, but none of these was their claim to fame; the Kosciusko was ‘the best fruit shop in town’. When Elias went to the Roma Street markets at 6 am to select his fruit—papaya, rock melon, cherries, whatever was in season—quality was paramount. Even the fruit salad was made from only the best fruit.
In 1943, Elias went to court over breaches of national security. In wartime, that amounted to selling oranges for 4d instead of the regulation price of 3d. He had paid 22/-9 for the case of oranges and at 4d each the return was only 24/-. In the ensuing court battle, Elias argued that he sold only the best fruit and could not sell the oranges in question for less than 4d without suffering a loss. He further explained that bags (9d), cartage (1/-), and any fruit that went bad, all increased the cost of fruit.
‘With only 72 oranges in a case,’ he said, ‘how can I sell them at 3d each?’
To no avail. Elias was fined £35.
MacArthur’s headquarters were nearby, and one day Elias took an order for ‘boxes and boxes of fruit’ with the whisper that ‘big things’ were happening. This was probably the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 or the Guadalcanal Campaign a few months later.
Deftereos Bros never acquired their building and when Finney’s bought it in 1949, they had to vacate the premises. Vasili having died in 1945, Elias took the case to court. Again, to no avail. After nearly 40 years, their lease expired. In 1951, the contents of the shop were put up for auction: a six-hole, stainless steel refrigerated milk bar, soda fountain arms, an electric carbonator, back mirror with plate-glass shelves, four Hamilton Beach mixers, 15 silky oak, marble-topped tables, 48 Austrian bentwood chairs, six bevelled wall mirrors, electric light shades, ceiling fans, and a National Cash Register. These items are typical of the fittings installed in the very best cafes.