There’s a lot to say about a place like Con’s, pictured here in the midst of a small row of anonymous shops on a street you’ve never heard of, in a suburb cherished by few.
It’s not Con’s anymore – it hasn’t been for many years – but that’s the identity that stuck. Run by an old man and his two sons, the ‘General Store & Deli’ provided basic needs to a growing young suburb. Along the way, we’ll hear from those who knew him best: his loyal customers.
Where to start with a place like Con’s? Do we talk about the price gouging? Corner shops like this tend to jack prices up past the point of no return on investment, but Con, an early pioneer of the $4 price point for a bottle of Coke, turned it into an art.
Red frogs that jumped from 5c each to a whopping 20c within five years. $4 Cokes when the local high school had them for $1.50. Cool, refreshing Calippos priced out of reach on a hot summer’s day. Bread that got more expensive as afternoon turned to evening, when the desperate would stop in on their way home from work.
“He was always so grumpy and keen to get rid of me, buying my seven carob buds for seven cents.”
Or we could talk about the Con’s experience, the service that made the place a local legend.
“I went there almost every day after school, but apart from enabling dietary habits that would not serve me well as an adult nothing really happened there. Con Jr was always a bit of a dickhead, but maybe he just hated kids, which in hindsight is fair enough.”
Taunting schoolkids. Turning away sales of less than $1. Not turning on the Street Fighter machine when asked.
“It was the first place I ever saw the Sub-Zero head rip fatality in Mortal Kombat. Thanks Con.”
Never knowing if it would be Con, or Daddy Con, or Brother Con behind the counter. The loud TV in the corner blaring foreign soap operas at all hours of the day. “Funny” point of sale banter suggesting leaving the change from a $20 for a bottle of milk as a “tip”. Perhaps the joke was on him: there was never much leftover.
“My mum was always really pissed at his prices. Con’s mantra of justification was something like ‘it is what it is'”.
On the other hand, we could talk about how many a desperate family had milk on their cereal because of Con’s, how too many late night Sega marathons were fuelled by Con’s Cheezels and Pepsi. How a chocolate bar after school could brighten a kid’s day, all because Con and co decided to dive into the retail world right here.
“They were pretty generous with the Oddbodz and Tazos back in the day. I’d ride up and buy like two 50c packets of chips, and he’d give me four or five packs of Oddbodz. Good times. I mean, I know the cheaper chips and lollies were offset by the extreme cost of milk and bread, but you’d only buy that from there out of desperation. Yeah, good times.”
We could talk about the early days before Con’s arrival, when the shop was run by “Aussies”, as if Con’s citizenship was somehow invalid because he had an accent. About the strip’s salon wars, when disgruntled hairdressers at the neighbouring Con-owned salon jumped ship and started their own business on the end of the row, beyond the reach of property tycoon Con.
“Once, I had an extreme hunger and ordered a sausage roll from there. Yeah, hot food was had from there once. They sold sausage rolls in that weird deli section. Con took it, chucked it in the microwave and served it up a few minutes later. I remember wondering why hadn’t I done this sooner.”
We could talk about this…except we already have.
We could talk about the no-nonsense appearance of the shop. Many corner shops or mixed businesses are adorned with logos such as Streets Ice Cream or Coca-Cola, tacit admissions that this is an authorised dealer for those conglomerates.
Con, beholden to no one but the almighty dollar, had minimal accoutrements. He was a lone wolf.
Or we could talk about the later years, when everyone had moved away, yet Con remained the constant, unsold lolly teeth laughing in the afternoon light long after school had ended for good.
“I suppose he saw us all grow up, really.”
Or finally, the day when it wasn’t Con, or Daddy Con, or even Brother Con behind the counter, but an Asian couple. The day Con gave up.
That day, Gatorades were $6 a bottle. The new owner’s tribute to Con, I assume, but it just wasn’t the same without him.
Now even the new owners are old, and gone. So ultimately, all that’s really left to talk about is an empty building. Where to start?
It looks like any other drab line of shops on a dreary corner in Dullsville.
So what’s the reason for our focus on this windswept Belmore street corner on such an unseasonably brisk evening?
I thought you’d never ask.
The Corner Grill Cafe has failed. The grill is dormant, the shakes are neither shaken nor stirred, and the chips remain a mere gleam in a spud’s eye. Don’t believe the signs; they’re open zero days, and there’s no home to deliver.
This location has long served up junk food to the masses – just look at the ghost sign on the building’s south:
And in that earlier time, the corner shop backed onto some kind of mechanic. It’s now an IT consultant, but the evidence is there:
Despite that, it’s nothing special. Just another small business caught in the thresher of the conglomerates that absorb everything we rely on. The blood has dried, and the scene of the crime is now available on a twelve month lease.
What caught my eye, however, was this.
This is what elevates the Corner Grill Cafe – and indeed, the whole block of shops – to being worthy of a handful of words on the internet. Someone cared.
Whoever it was that founded the Corner Grill, that did their research, signed the lease, had the signs made, ordered the milkshake powder and on whose orders thousands of coffee beans were ground to death, that person believed in their idea, as wholly unoriginal as it was, and they gave a gift to an audience they thought they knew.
They believed that this corner of Belmore needed the Corner Grill Cafe, and only in the way they could provide it. They believed that it would fly, that the air would benefit from the smell of juicy, flame-grilled burgers instead of cigarette smoke and desperate living.
They believed that the arcade games that used to make the adjacent corner shop (and countless others like it) sing still had a place, however abstract, on Yangoora Street. They believed that the community had a place for their dream, and they commissioned this artwork to prove it.
That they were wrong doesn’t matter. They left their mark, and these days, that’s enough.
A burger…master. Mayor McCheese, I presume?
As we’ve discussed many times before, milk bars are dinosaurs: fondly remembered, but when they turn up in the wild they’re completely fossilised. Is Canterbury Road, Canterbury’s Burgermaster any different?
No. A look inside shows the sad, decrepit remains of what was once a kitchen where dreams were made and hunger was satisfied. And it’s actively rotting. Take a look at the same view just five years ago.
But what’s most interesting about this place, particularly from a visual standpoint, are the cigarette ads plastered all over the shopfront. They built these things to last:
As a product, Borkum Riff first appeared in the 60s, and judging by the depiction of the guy here, so did this ad.
In 1992, the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Act came into effect in Australia, by which point cigarette advertising on TV, radio and local print media had already been banned. By 1995, familiar phrases like “Fresh is Alpine”, “You’re laughing!” and the ubiquitous “…anyhow, have a Winfield” had been completely erased from the cultural landscape, and nobody ever smoked again.
Perhaps aware that the end was nigh, these tobacco companies invested in some heavy duty glue for their final bombardment.
In the case of Port Royal, a heavy duty moustache was also necessary to seal the deal. Doubtless this heroic mo has inspired thousands to roll their own in the years since.
…anyhow, the thought of the combined taste of burgers, milkshakes and Winnie greens is absolutely doing it for me, and since we won’t be getting any here, it’s time to head off. There’s gotta be something open along here somewhere…
How common a sight is this? Even if we’re not living in the golden age of the take-away shop (and we really aren’t), you still can’t seem to swing a dead focaccia in Sydney’s suburbs without hitting one of these, or an ex-one of these.
For those readers too young (pfft, yeah right) to remember, let me take you back for a moment. In my day, you could go to these places called milk bars or take-aways, which were usually plastered in Coca-Cola advertising. Not Pepsi…never Pepsi.
They’d make hot food and keep it in these giant contraptions called bain maries, which made it impossible to tell how long it’d been there. Crucially, they were also trojan horses into the then-fledgeling world of ethnic food: Australians not open minded enough to actually go to a Greek restaurant might still have a souvlaki at their local take-away. Ingenious, really.
This particular take-away seems to have spent most of its early years as a residential property before taking the plunge into the deep-fry. The kind of fatty junk sold here probably filled the stomachs of the blue-collar workers who once populated the area, or the staff and patients of Callan Park Mental Hospital which is just across the road, but as times and tastes changed it was out with the milkshakes and schnitzels (mmm, together at last), and in with the coffee and rolls.
But let’s go back even earlier, shall we, to a time before deep fried food clogged Australia’s arteries…
You’d better believe Mrs. Cutting wasn’t serving up dim sims and Chiko rolls to her 50 guests. I wonder if Dubbo’s local papers still herald the homecoming of any travelling Dubbogan (Dubsider? Dubbocastrian?)
The celebrations didn’t last long, because by 1943 the Cuttings had cut loose, and the jocks were in.
As you can see, Mr. John Smith (dynamic name, no wonder he became Jock) lived right here in the mid-1940s while working as a labourer. SEE? I WASN’T MAKING ALL THAT UP ABOUT IT BEING BLUE COLLAR!
Ahem. But once Jock’s labours were over, business became a little…mixed. A dynasty that would last over six decades began here for a measly 1500 pounds. I wonder if the take-away was making 140 pounds a week?
As recently as last year, the newly minted Rozelle Coffee Lounge was still feeding the locals, but in a much harsher, more competitive environment. Go to Rozelle today and there are gourmet cafes on every corner, so the more meat-and-potatoes establishments face an uphill battle, and that’s probably why the Coffee Lounge isn’t around today.
As the suburb has become gentrified and all the blue collars have turned to ironic skivvies, there’s no longer any call for a place like this. The Coffee Lounge knew it, as it’s currently under construction, presumably transforming into something more suitable to today’s clientele.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll always find those Coca-Cola takeaways suitable. There’s something really…comforting about them. If you drive into a country town and things are looking unfamiliar and unsettling in a Deliverance kind of way, a place like this is all you need to soften the sound of the banjos.
Once upon a time, Roberto was passing through Marrickville’s Addison Road and couldn’t help but notice the area’s abundance of shaggy, unkempt hairdos. Having struggled for years to decide how best to harness his natural talent for hairstyling, Roberto saw the light and immediately set up shop in this old grocer.
Okay, so maybe it didn’t happen quite like that, but I’d be surprised if it did…just like I was surprised to learn that long ago, landlords actually begged for tenants. Hey, tenants, you know all that nonsense you’re currently going through just to get a place to live in this town? All the begging and grovelling, the applications and rejections, the shameless pimping of your reputation just to be able to live where you want to live? Well, you might consider going back to 1926…
Now hold on, I can’t go past that first ad. “Wanted – young girl”? If you tried that today, you’d be sharing a cell with Rolf Harris quicker than you could sing the first few bars of Jake the Ped…er, Peg.
Anyway, back to Roberto (or Rob, as he now prefers to be known).
The high placement of the grocer signage looks out of place now, but in its prime it would have been a welcome beacon for hungry owners of bare cupboards, perched atop the tallest building on the block. Sadly, the only hint of that much more fruitful era are the elegant windows above the shop entrances.
The line of shops that includes the salon may not look like much today, but back in the early 1950s it was a prime investment opportunity:
Yes, back then this was considered a ‘self-contained shopping centre’ instead of whatever you’d call it now. It even had a picture theatre across the road (now a petrol station)! Just think about that – this dingy, lonely set of shops was once a place where you’d actually want to spend time.