6 June 2024

Too few helping hands sees George Drakakis hang up his apron

| John Thistleton
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George Drakakis

About to sell his business, George Drakakis is looking forward to seeing more of his wife Janelle and son Nathan and will fence his 25-acre property 16 kilometres from town and stock it with cattle. He is also passionate about photography, and will be looking for another job. Photo: John Thistleton.

After experiencing the highs and hardships of the hospitality industry, George Drakakis is selling Charcoal Chicken in Goulburn.

He has sold the popular Auburn Street restaurant to Sandeep Behgal, a qualified chef of six years who worked at the Paragon Cafe.

Accustomed to hard work and 14-hour days, George nevertheless has been struggling to find enough staff to help prepare food since COVID-19, which ruined many restaurants throughout Australia and threatened the viability of his business.

George helped his mother and father Georgina and Manuel earn an indelible reputation for entertaining their customers at the 147 Restaurant over many years.

He then set off on his own food journey in 2000, leaving Goulburn and learning about charcoal chicken retailing in Camden. There he went into a partnership with Manuel’s brother Arthur Drakakis. The following year he met his future wife Janelle in Camden and they returned to Goulburn in 2003, opening Charcoal Chicken on the southern end of Auburn Street where they traded for six years.

He added pizzas to his extensive menu. “Mum’s brother John Terizis had a pizzeria in Rose Bay and he taught me everything – how to make the sauce, how to make the dough. He had the Grandfather’s Moustache in Rose Bay since 1971 and only recently closed it,” he said.

Before COVID, George was selling 12 to 18 pizzas every night, a good outcome for a chicken shop. “We had staff here to do the pizzas, but since COVID came, we lost all the staff, it changed everything,” he said. At one stage he was doing everything single-handedly. He now has two staff helping him. Two others left when they heard he was selling the business.

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George’s day begins at 6:15 am when he lights the charcoal in readiness for the first chicken to be on by 8 o’clock. He then makes salads, serves customers coffee and continues preparing food.

At 8:45 am Joe Price, 89, a retired sheep cocky who had a farm at Crookwell, comes in for coffee. Joe returns at 2:30 pm every day, one of many regulars for whom Charcoal Chicken has become a second home.

For George, seeing people enjoy his food is the most rewarding aspect of his endeavours. In summer, when the windows are opened onto the footpath releasing the delicious cooking smells of breakfast into the main street and the sound of friends having a laugh over their coffee, the eatery is reminiscent of a golden era of dining out at the 147.

Georgina and Manuel closed the 147 in 2001, another restaurant opened and later closed, leaving the premises vacant until George opened there in 2009. He has wonderful memories of helping his parents at the 147.

“People didn’t come out for dinner they came to be entertained,” he said, reflecting on those joyous times that included weddings, and keyboard performances from Paul Paviour and Kieran Davies. “We had live bands, the staff we had were fantastic, we had some beautiful people serving drinks and we had fun; we thoroughly enjoyed it.”

At 11 pm on Fridays and Saturdays they would close the restaurant’s doors and continue entertaining whoever was left sitting around the tables. “I would put the music up and we would dance and sing,” he said. Free port flowed into the early hours of the next day.

These days the restaurant begins winding down at 7:30 pm when the hamburger grill is turned off a half hour ahead of closing, the floors are cleaned, benches wiped down and salads put away. The chickens are mostly sold out by then. If not, sometimes he will stay open to 8:30 pm hoping to sell them all and begin the next day with fresh ones.

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George is often exhausted by day’s end. “It’s alright when you are 35, but when you get to 58, it’s taking its toll,” he said. “I can’t do it anymore; I feel my body starting to let go. Forty hours a week is fantastic, 100 hours a week …”

During COVID Charcoal Chicken was classed as an essential business for providing food, but not dining out. George and his two staff toiled away long and hard. Customers bought chickens, salad and chips and quickly retreated home. The staff worked flat out for the eight months Goulburn was shut down.

“We haven’t recovered since then,” George said. “We can’t find staff to work in hospitality. Most hospitality businesses are relying on immigrants from the Philippines and Nepal,” he said.

“You never know, I might get back into hospitality because I love cooking good food, but at the moment it is the furthest thing from my mind,” George said.

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