From an explosion of milkshakes and sodas to the emptying of iconic storefronts, the history of the classic Australian milk bar might not be what you expect.
You’ll probably never see a bag of lollies as low-priced as they used to be from the milk bar around the corner. The milk bar was a staple of the Australian suburbs, and the rise and fall of the establishment is almost as iconic as the milk bars themselves once were.
With inspiration taken from the drugstore soda bars of America and Hollywood glamour, over time, the Australian milk bar has boasted a perfect storm of offerings: candy shops and cornerstores, sometimes with the added bonuses of a newsagent, deli, or social club.
Thought to have been Australia’s first milk bar is the Black & White 4d Milk Bar that opened in 1932 in Sydney’s CBD. The entrepreneur was Mick Adams – who changed his name from Joachim Tavlaridis after immigrating from Greece – and his unique idea of only selling milkshakes and sodas took off. More iterations of the milk bar run by Greek families developed and, reportedly, by 1937, there were 4000 of them across Australia.
These Greek families faced challenges in their new homes, especially while providing their communities with this innovative hospitality offering. Proprietors took steps like appointing Australian staff and anglicising their names – like Mick Adams did – to try and gain social acceptance.
Over time, the milk bar – or corner shop – evolved, adapting to the conveniences required of the average person running home from work, as well as the social needs of the locals. Offering not only the daily paper and ingredients for the night’s dinner, the milk bar also became the place you go to get the update on the goings on of the town, and a dose of socialising. More often than not, you would know your local milk bar proprietor and they would know you.
But as time went on, the expectations of convenience became higher than any milk bar could ever provide, and unfortunately, other aspects of cultural development were not kind to the many milk bars throughout Australia. As property values rose, milk bars and other small businesses struggled to keep up, and the debut of the Big M in the 1970s and its infiltration of the flavoured milk market made the milkshake business basically redundant.
Further, in the late 1980s, Sunday trading was introduced, allowing for larger grocery stores to open more frequently, and meaning that milk bars were no longer the only food shopping option for the majority of the weekend. The popularity of these grocery stores along with petrol stations that had convenience stores attached increased, and often offered cheaper prices than your average milk bar. The recession in the 1990s was yet another hit for the small businesses.
These days, you’ll see the faded facades of milk bars mostly as historical settings for new, trendy cafes. Some stores and grocers have endeavoured to honour the local community feel of the old-fashioned milk bar, using aspects like in-house chefs and takeaway options to achieve this.
Despite the disappearance of the milk bar from Australian streets over the last 50 years, it can’t be denied the milk bar revolutionised the experience of errand running for a time in Australia’s history.
Pictured: Regent Theatre Milk Bar, Brisbane, 1936. Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland