29 March 2023

Wollongong's chicken king returns to his throne

| Zoe Cartwright
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Tony Gregoriou with a cake

Tony celebrates his birthday at his famous chicken shop. Despite attempting to retire, he’s back in business. Photo: Tony Gregoriou.

Tony Gregoriou has always done everything young – getting married, having children, and then starting his own business aged just 23.

So retiring at 58 seemed like the next step for the owner of Wollongong’s beloved Tony’s Chicken Shop.

But retirement just didn’t stick for Tony, who returned to reign over his kingdom on Crown Street this week.

“It’s funny, you miss it after a while,” Tony said.

“Fifty-eight is too young to sit around watching TV! It was good to have a rest and a break after so many years, but I missed the people, I missed being around them, and it’s good to be back.”

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The shop – which has been serving takeaways since 1985 – began as a small chicken shop.

As the business grew, Tony was able to buy the butcher’s shop next door, in 1995, and then the adjacent chemist in 2000.

As the premises expanded, so did the offerings – from hot chooks to burgers, fish and chips and now catering.

“If you told me back then we were going to do parties I would have laughed at you,” he said.

“But now we can cater 25 parties in one day. It’s a big thing, it’s different altogether now.”

The change has in part been driven by the different lifestyles and purchasing habits of Tony’s customers.

As more families have become dual income and restrictions on opening hours have eased, getting a takeaway meal is a more regular part of many people’s lives.

“When we first started people used to come in once a week and get a full chicken to have a dinner; now you see the same customer two times a day no problem,” he said.

“Not two times a week, two times a day, so they might pop in to get lunch and then later they pop in to get dinner.

“I remember when we started on Sunday at 12 o’clock all the shops had to shut, so we made a roaring business on Saturday afternoon, and then long weekends were really tough, but now it’s very different.”

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When the shop first opened Tony only intended to have it for a couple of years. He had arrived in Wollongong ten years before opening the shop, as a child refugee from Cyprus, with his family.

Now he has watched generations grow up and seen how the face of the city has changed.

But as much as things change, they stay the same, and he says Wollongong is still the city he fell in love with.

It’s passion, too, that kept him at the shop.

“At the end of the day you have to love what you do; if you don’t have that passion, you can’t deliver,” he said.

“I like being with people, and I like food – both are good passions to have.

“So I go around and talk to everyone, stay on top of things. You have to make sure it’s not overdone or underdone, it’s seasoned correctly, cooked correctly.

“And I like talking to people, I like telling stories, we like to give the best quality of service.

“The kids I used to sell lollies to nearly 40 years ago, now they’ve all got kids and come in to the shop.

“Wollongong has changed a lot, but in some ways it’s very much the same.”

Three years ago he sold up, but when the owners didn’t want to continue he couldn’t let the shop close.

While his family were less than enthusiastic about Tony leaving his retirement, he felt he had to save the business he had poured so much of his life into.

His customers are delighted – and so is Tony.

“The response of people makes me so grateful, so happy that everybody is excited for us to be back,” he said.

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