Colin Chen calls time

Words by Rob Cairns

Roti (L) and Colin

Walking the well patronised shopping strip at the southern end of Bolton Street (Eltham) there is a phrase written in relief on a frosted glass panel of the street facing window: “HEALTHY EATING, HAPPY LIVING”.  It is the strap-line of, and invitation to, Colin Chen’s Bolton Street Deli.  It is the last week in a special month, at the end of which Colin declares victory after 17 years as proprietor. 

On entering, there he is, with the usual smile that would light up Adelaide and has welcomed customers for many years.  The place is redolent with the aromas of freshly roasted coffee – “Colin’s Blend”.  We walk past the glass refrigerated showcase of meats, cheeses, spreads, pickles, pastries and more.  We sidestep the rack of organic sourdough loaves freighted in from Torquay that assault the senses in a good way, to the racks of wine at the back end of the shop.  He asks what I feel like and chooses a Shiraz from the Bendigo – Heathcote region, where the Cambrian rock soils produce a deep front of palate richness.  Back to the front of the shop there is his café enclave of tables and seats where, with accompanying nibbles we sit and enjoy the wine. Colin is a wine lover.

There have been many occasions when just shopping, Colin has ambushed me with opened wine, but this is different and the last.  We are joined by the new proprietor for a chat and this article.

Colin came to Melbourne from Quandong Province, China in 1992 as a teacher and was joined here by his wife in 1993.  Living in Carlton while studying for his Masters of Education at the University of Melbourne, led to 9 years as a language teacher at Eltham College.  

From his exit there, a sliding doors moment: with no prior experience, on the advice of a friend who became a silent partner, he borrowed heaps and purchased the deli in 2005.  Colin claims to have “a good palette” and tasted many offerings at food shows, and discovered emerging trends in the food industry.  An outstanding success of his trial and error tastings is Colin’s Blend coffee.  He claims that it saved the shop during the Bolton Street road-works, when takings were down 30%; and helped him do very well during pandemic lockdowns.  Today, a supplier roasts 35 kilos per week on his behalf, ensuring continuity when Colin departs. 

Colin has purchased new wheels and wants to tour Victoria with his wife.  After that, who knows!

The third person at our table is a young man named Foti Andrianopoulos, the new proprietor, whose acquisition seems just as sliding doors – his brother’s family lives across the road and Colin’s interest was cultivated.  Foti’s folks came to Australia from Pikermi in Greece. He has worked in supermarkets and knows grocery, but not the delicatessen business, nor coffee.  Today he is busy preparing the shop for life after Colin.  A new energy stirs, but the coffee won’t change.