Manuel Xyrakis always wanted a cash register for Christmas and had aspirations of being an accountant.
Instead, he inherited a supermarket that has become his second home.
He’s really only had a break at his first home due to COVID-19.
Mr Xyrakis jokes his nephews Nicholas, Dimitri and Keith locked him out of the Ainslie IGA during the COVID-19 pandemic so he could take an extended break and help look after his family.
“It was hard to be told to get out of the shop, but the boys wanted me to be at home looking after their grandmother,” Manuel tells Region Media over a coffee and a few laughs about life in the popular supermarket that is an institution in Ainslie and for many Canberrans.
His mother and family matriarch, Alice, is now 89 years old, so the boys had already made the decision for their boss and mentor to be at home.
“But I was just moping around the house for two months while the boys worked seven days a week. I was a lost soul,” Manuel said. “I’m the captain of the ship but I wasn’t there to support the boys. They even blocked me from their group chat,” he says laughing.
But the boys didn’t just keep the supermarket afloat – they kept locals in business and staff employed. When the florist next door had to temporarily close, the IGA sold her flowers.
Manuel is now back at his second home, among an extended family of locals and staff members like Domenic who has been their grocery manager since 1974. Domenic also bakes the bread that is sold there daily.
About 200 local producers supply Ainslie IGA, with everything from homemade marinated octopus to frozen baby food.
And then there’s the cheese.
The ‘cheese wall’ began life as just two shelves, but as the name suggests, it now occupies an entire wall of the supermarket, offering more than 250 varieties.
“In a supermarket, you don’t make money selling Kellogg’s Cornflakes and Nescafe. You have to be a point of difference, so we put our resources into what I call the ‘fresh department’ – the meats, fruit and vegetables and, of course, the cheese.
“I was a bit sceptical about selling so much cheese but we gave it a go.
“When we opened up the deli and the cheese wall, the reaction from the customers was just amazing. We exceeded our sales target by $20,000 in the first week,” says Manuel.
It was, literally, the ‘say cheese’ moment.
According to nephew Nick: “We had customers coming in asking if this was the place with the cheese. They would end up taking selfies with the cheese in the background.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the family, though.
The Xyrakis family purchased three other supermarkets in 1976, at Hawker, Kambah and Batemans Bay. By 1978, those three shops had been placed in receivership and eventually became Woolworths supermarkets.
Aged 23, the would-be accountant Manuel says he received a “double degree in life”.
“I remember seeing my dad break down, but in the same moment, he banged his fist on the table and said ‘We’re going to get out this’. He set out the strategies and together we got through it.”
The supermarket will have its challenges to come, but Manuel says its future is safe in the hands of the third generation who will soon run it.
“When my parents told me that I was going to run the shop, we made our mistakes, but we never made the mistake of not listening to what our customers were telling us, and that was to support the local community and they will always support you back.”
“The last thing my father told me before he died 34 years ago was to never sell the shop.
“So my plan now is to show the boys how to have a future here, but one where they can have a little more balance in life,” Manuel says.