My family came from Sicily in 1967 when I was five years old. Things were tough in Europe then so lots of people were moving here. My name is Santo Pelligra, and I’ve been in Greensborough since 1985.
When we arrived in Australia we lived in Richmond and after years of saving my parents bought a house in Reservoir. I did most of high-school there, but left after year eleven because I wanted to be a tradesman; I wanted to be a carpenter and build houses. I just loved working with my hands. I tried hard to get an apprenticeship, taking trams and buses and trains, looking for any vacancy. But I just couldn’t find one. Then one day my brother showed me an ad for a job at a pastry shop.
The ad was for a kitchen hand and my brother suggested I try it while I waited for a carpenter apprenticeship, so I did. I fell in love with the job the minute I walked in the door. Before that, I hadn’t cooked much, but once I started I was fascinated how things were made, “So that’s how Cannolis are made…” I’d say “Oh, that’s how an Éclair is made!” Three months in I knew I had found my trade. My dad was not happy though.
My dad’s name was Corrado Pelligra. In Sicily, he was a farmer and made goat cheese to sell at markets, but here he was a labourer at Melbourne Council. There he learnt about an opening for an apprentice mechanic, which he thought was better than making pastries. “I don’t want to be a mechanic!” I told him. He didn’t know this industry, and back then being a mechanic or bricklayer was the thing to do. Eventually, he told me to do what I wanted, and slowly he learned what my work involved.
Years later I had the chance to manage a cake shop in Greensborough, across the street, just doors up from where we are today. After a lot of work, the shop was doing well, and some months later I decided to buy it. I was about 24 years old and had got married just months before. We renamed the shop ‘Greensborough Cake Kitchen’ hoping the locals would relate, but things were tough. I was new to business and we had everything riding on this, the house and all our funds, so any profits went right back into the shop. I knew things would improve though.
When dad retired he and mum would come over to help: he’d take out the rubbish, fix things, and do what he could. Sometimes we’d joke about him wanting me to be a mechanic, but it was just a joke. By then he knew who I was and supported me. This was before Greensborough Bypass was made and a lot more traffic would come down Main Street.
Many shops on the strip depended on that traffic, like a Newsagency near the corner that sold most papers to people driving into the city. When the bypass opened in ‘88 some stores moved into the shopping centre, and others went belly up, like the Newsagency. I think we are the only business that remains here from those days.
In time things changed for the better, and once we were stable enough we moved here to live; this is where my kids grew up. Our customers have changed too; I remember they weren’t used to our cakes and only drank instant, but when we started serving Italian style coffee they took a liking to it - we kept a can of instant around for years, just in case! The job changed me too, I think. I’ve become a better person by dealing with the public. When you make a cake for people it’s a joyous occasion; they feel good about it and you feel good about that.
Some years ago my youngest son, David, told me he wanted to come into the business fulltime; my daughter Samantha came on board soon after, and then Corrie, my oldest son, joined us too. The suburb was changing again, with the council moving here, and we wanted to keep up, so we expanded into the shop next door. Before we had a kitchen, the counter and small tables; now we are a place where people socialise. This was only possible because my kids are with me; I couldn’t have done it alone.
When I came from Sicily I was four years old so I’ve always considered myself Australian, even if people catalogue us as Italian. Still, if there is one thing I want my kids to retain of our Italian heritage it’s the sense of family. Mum still grabs a bus from Reservoir and comes to visit, and my brother, who also lives in Greensborough, pops by for a chat every week. My father passed away 29 years ago before my kids were born, but two or three times a year they all come with me to the cemetery to visit him.