From the 1930s to the 1960s, Repin’s Coffee Inns were an institution in Sydney, providing office workers with good coffee and reasonably priced meals. The chain was founded in 1930 by a Russian immigrant, Ivan Repin.
Repin was, by profession, a mining engineer. After the 1917 revolution in his homeland, he worked under the communist regime for some years but left Russia with his family in 1925. Travelling via Siberia and Japan, they settled in Sydney. He worked as a miner, tried running a bus company, and then became a taxi driver. According to a 1937 article in Smith’s Weekly, it was during his time driving the cab that Ivan Repin recognised a need for “a place where decent coffee could be obtained under decent conditions and at a reasonable price”.
The first Repin’s Coffee Inn opened in King Street, Sydney, in 1930. Before long, a second opened next to the Tivoli Theatre in Castlereagh Street. By 1937, there were five Repin’s Coffee Inns in the city. They operated from 9 am until midnight.
It was a time when tea and coffee were often served free with a meal, but Repin’s “American blend” coffee clearly justified its asking price. The coffee inns became popular. Repin reportedly operated his business along American lines and in 1935 and 1938 he travelled to the USA to perfect his blends. Repin’s even began to sell their coffee for people to brew at home.
According to a 1937 column in the Gundagai Independent, Cousin Cassie’s Letter to Women, the Repin’s Coffee Inns supplied a long-felt want in Sydney. It seems that, along with their coffee, the establishments specialised in sandwiches.
I was particularly interested in his special sandwiches. Here is one you might like to try before setting out on a cold journey. A “Canberra” sandwich was comprised of three slices of bread with ham forming the two fillings. This three-layered sandwich was then toasted and a fried egg placed on top of it. Lettuce with a mayonaisse [sic] of a very delightful quality was placed on the plate beside the sandwich.
Ivan Repin died in 1949 and the business was continued by his brother, Peter, and subsequently by Ivan’s son, George. George was a doctor but gave up his medical practice to ensure the continuation of the family business. He became a major figure in the Catering Trades Organisation of New South Wales.
Initially, the coffee at Repin’s was made percolator style. In the 1950s, espresso machines were installed in some of the cafés, notably the MoKa coffee lounge at Kings Cross which George founded in 1955. The Museum of Arts and Applied Sciences (MAAS) has a collection of items from Repin’s Coffee Inns, including menus from the 1950s. The cafés served mainly light snacks such as sandwiches, egg dishes and a wide range of sweets, cakes and waffles. Daily specials included more substantial meals such as roasts and grills.
As Sydney rents became more expensive in the 1960s, the coffee inns began to struggle. New food courts offered alternative lunch options to city workers. Other chains, including Cahills restaurants and Sargent’s Tea Rooms, also closed their doors. George Repin left the business in the mid-1960s and the coffee sales operation was acquired by Harris Coffee in the mid-1970s.