Signs of the times

Sepia toned black and white photo of group of men and women walking down street.
Charles and Evelyn O’Harte, Patricia Woodley (nee O’Harte) and unknown man, c1940s, George Street, Sydney, Speciality Studio. Courtesy of Woodley Family Collection
In the background of many street photos are glimpses of Sydney’s architecture, from still-recognisable locations to popular landmarks of the day. Many photos also show signs advertising businesses now long gone, including popular cafes like Repin’s and Sargents.

Repin’s Coffee Inns

Today’s cafe culture in Sydney is most often attributed to the wave of Italian and central European immigration that followed World War II. While the influence of these immigrants on our morning routine cannot be overstated, there is one man whose story is often overlooked – Ivan Dmitrievitch Repin.

Russian-born Repin and his family arrived in Sydney in 1925, having fled their homeland when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917. After working a few different jobs, including driving taxis, Repin opened his first coffee shop in September 1930 at 152 King Street. Located across the road from the Supreme Court, and in close proximity to Martin Place and the government buildings on Macquarie Street, Repin’s venture was soon a success among workers and and daytrippers to the city. Building on this momentum, Repin expanded, opening a second cafe the following year, in Castlereagh Street, and another in 1933, in Market Street. By the mid-1930s there were two Repin’s Coffee and Tea Shops on both King and Pitt streets, and a fifth on Market Street. In 1937, Repin moved one store from Pitt Street to George Street, and opened another store, Repin’s Quality Inn, at 108 King Street.

With hindsight, the opening of multiple new cafes in the midst of the Great Depression appears a risky venture. However, the economic conditions that might have sunk Repin’s business instead worked to shape it. His coffee shops became sanctuaries for companies who could no longer afford to pay rent for office space; employers met their staff in one of his many establishments to read the mail that they had collected from the General Post Office.

Inspired by his research trips to the United States, Repin modelled his coffee shops on American cafes, offering ‘fast, clean service at minimum price’.1 At a time when most people drank tea, Repin’s served coffee at 3 shillings a cup with cream in little pots on the side or, for those who could afford an extra 3 shillings, ‘Vienna style’ with whipped cream on top. He began roasting coffee beans at the entrance to his stores, enticing customers in with the alluring aromas. His stores also sold freshly ground beans by the bag, an innovative practice at the time. By the end of the 1930s, Repin’s was as ubiquitous in Sydney as Starbucks is now in Manhattan.

Reliable, respected and reassuring, Repin’s was as familiar as your grandmother’s sitting room – just with better coffee.

  • 1. J Laffin, ‘The Repin story’, Hotel and Café News, April 1955, p12.
  • Sepia toned black and white photo of two women in hats walking down street.
  • Sepia toned black and white photo of two women in hats walking down street.
  • Sepia toned black and white photo of two women in hats walking down street.
  • Sepia toned black and white photo of two women in hats walking down street.
  • Sepia toned black and white photo of two women in hats walking down street.

About the author

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Hayley Edmonds

Hayley Edmonds is a project volunteer at Sydney Living Museums.