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Nut stall a multiracial mix

Customers at Sam Vavasis's Peanut Market come from a dozen different ethnic origins.

Customers at Sam Vavasis's Peanut Market come from a dozen different ethnic origins.

Customers at Sam Vavasis's Peanut Market come from a dozen different ethnic origins.

AS A measure of Melbourne's multiple cultures, you could do worse than study the Dandenong Nut Index. I'm talking about the wares at the 36-year-old nut stall at Dandenong Market. Greek-born labourer Bill Vavasis got the Peanut Market up and running in the 1970s after seeing an Asian bloke selling nuts in shells at the city's Queen Victoria market. "Couldn't be that hard," thought Bill and from the original half-dozen basic nuts the Vavasis family stall now stocks more than 400 types of nuts, seeds, spices and berries.

"It has grown with the customers," says 52-year-old son Sam, a former banker who now runs the business. "The Afghans were first about 15 years ago. They started asking for various products we didn't have at the time. Like Afghan sultanas, which are different in flavour, texture and sometimes colouring. There were certain varieties that were better for certain dishes so we would take some of these things on and word would spread.

"We had a lot of Iranian customers coming as well. They were into Iranian pistacchios and raisins."

Now the range includes such exotica as sumak spice mix, kaffir limes, bitter melon, green paw paw, snake beans and cherry eggplant. The goods come from all points of the compass - Afghanistan, India, China, the US, Turkey, Argentina, Iran.

The day I dropped by, eight of his numerous counter staff were Asian women. "All students," says Sam. "I started with two, then they recommended friends. Saves me the trouble of hunting around myself. They've been wonderful."

The Peanut Market has been operating for so long it has spanned generations. "We have had pregnant women come along, then the baby comes shopping with mum, toddler, teenager, gets married, has children and they are still coming."

Sam married 22 years ago to an Australian-born Greek lady, Sue, and has two children, son Will, 19, and daughter Constance, 17.

His customers are as varied as his produce - Afghans, Serbians, Bosnians, Italians, Greeks, Vietnamese. "I think multiculturalism works in Australia because we follow the rules a bit," says Sam. "We do have laws that say keep to the left, stop at red lights and so on and the majority follow those rules. As long as there are some guidelines given it's OK. If there were no rules at all we would have chaos. We need boundaries."

He has visited Greece once. "A great place for a holiday," he says, "but I don't know whether I could live there because of the different customs." His mother, Rita, died two years ago but father, Bill, 81, is still active. "He pokes his head in occasionally to correct things he thinks need correcting," says Sam, who spent nine years with the National Australia Bank after leaving school.

The family stall has recently relocated after a $26 million renovation of Dandenong Market. "We are where the netball court used to be," says Sam, who also runs a coffee stall alongside. He recently opened a third stall, Sam's Spice and Grocery.

As in his banking days, Sam prides himself on customer service, but you can't please everyone. "I remember just one bank customer who went away dissatisfied," he says. "Wanted to transfer money to a little island in Greece where we had no branch. We couldn't please him and I felt bad. And I can recall only a handful of customers at the nut shop over the years who we could not satisfy.

''But people are all normal, they're just different, if that makes sense.''


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