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Marking 85 years since Australia's first modern day Greek-owned milk bar

Saturday is the anniversary of the Black & White, a milk bar owned by Greek-born Mick Adams that what would go on to become a nation-wide and global phenomenon, and significant part of the country's popular culture

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Adams, standing at the rear holding a glass of milk, with children from the Dalwood Health Home.
Photo courtesy L. Keldoulis, from the 'In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians' National Project Archives, Macquarie University, Sydney.

So it was a global phenomenon, an Australian export, and it is part of our cultural development. That's why we're celebrating it and it wasn't a British Australian creation, it was a creation by a Greek migrant. The story of the Greek Diaspora is one of taking up ideas and transferring them, and then transforming host societies, and then there are knock on effects as the Diaspora continues to move and this is an example of that.
03 November 2017

When Mick Adams (nee Joachim Tavlarides) returned to Greece for an 18-month stint from Australia with his wife and young daughter and ventured to the United States, he had no idea of the impact that he would come to have on Australia's popular culture.

Exposure to the Greek galaktopoleio (milk shop) and the American soda parlours and drugstores fitted with Hamilton Beach Shake Makers, formulated a transnational concept that led to the conceptualisation of the modern 'American-style' milk bar.

On 4 November 1932, Adams opened the Black & White 4d milk bar at Sydney's Martin Place – the name inspired by the Black and White Whiskey advertising he was exposed to in the US.

Specialising in cold refreshment beverages, the establishment churned out only milkshakes and sodas, and this very simple concept had a huge impact on locals. Within the first year of opening, they welcomed an average of 27,000 customers per week. Given Australia's isolation, being exposed to a new concept executed with technology from the US was seen as exotic, and made locals feel like they were becoming a part of the modern world. And that concept would go on to become a phenomenon both nationwide and abroad.

Adams came from humble beginnings; born in the little Thracian village of Peristasi (now Sarkoy in Turkey), at the age of 14 an earthquake destroyed his hometown, leading his brother who was living in Australia to send him money to make his way from Athens to Sydney. However finding the funds to make the trip from Thrace to the capital would take a little more brainpower.

"My father was only very little, he's only 5 foot 2, and he became friendly with a Turkish lady who had a great big skirt, so he asked if he could hide under her skirt to be taken to Athens. So that's how he got there," Adams' eldest daughter Helen Geroindis told Neos Kosmos.

"When he arrived in Sydney he worked in various shops, mainly Greek ones, and he told me he was working almost 20 out of 24 hours a day and they slept in the kitchen, and I think he was sleeping on a table at some stage. He really had a hard time," she recalls.

The interior of Black & White 4d milk bar.

Photo courtesy L. Keldoulis, from the 'In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians' National Project Archives, Macquarie University, Sydney

A hard worker, with an entrepreneurial spirit, after the ongoing success of the Black & White, Adams went on to open chains of the milk bar around the country, operated by extended family, including another in Sydney, two in Adelaide, one in Wollongong, Brisbane and Melbourne.

While Helen has fond memories of the milk bar and its success, visiting after school "sitting in the front cubicle and just watching the people walking up and down", she says her one regret has continued to be his physical absence from family life.

"Growing up I don't remember very much of my father at all during the week. Weekends we saw him. Even in school holidays we had to spend it with my mother." But it's the one holiday they spent as a whole family that she holds dear.

"The only one my father came to, I remember that one was the best one we ever had because we went to a hotel and he was there for all the meals, mum didn't have to cook, and we were a family."

The historical significance of Adams' milk bars has been documented by historian and the co-author of Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia, Leonard Janiszewski who says that the 85th anniversary and recognition of the Black & White is a challenge to Australian culture and its development.

"In Australian history, we have had Australian histories that have been written essentially from documents that come from a British Australian background. Now what we've been able to do is utilise material from a non-English speaking background, Greek in this case, to come up with a significant development in regard to our popular culture as a nation, and that being the milk bar, it's iconic, but it was a Greek that developed it."

Prior to discovering this documentation in the Greek language and engaging with Adams' descendants, the dialogue around the first milk bar focused on the Burt brothers, whose only first was having the first open milk bar with a concertina door.

"So in regard to the British Australian information, it was incorrect. This is now, as far as we're concerned, the first modern milk bar within Australia," says Janiszewski.

Mick Adams (Joachim Tavlarides), pictured here with children from the Dalwood Health Home, "believed that the Depression gave a fillip" to milk bars "as the public very quickly realised the value of milk as a tonic food... and also the price [of fourpence per glass]… considerably eased the financial position".

Photo courtesy L. Keldoulis, from the 'In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians' National Project Archives, Macquarie University, Sydney

The historian clarifies that while the term milk bar had been applied to establishments prior to the Black & White, they were in fact soda parlours offering table service and selling confectioneries, pastries, and so on, while Adams' milk bar focused solely on milk shakes and sodas – a smart business decision in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

"The main focus was the bar, with soda pumps on the front bar, and the Hamilton on the back bar. There were six small booth seats, and above there was a sign saying 'no table service'. So he got away with not having a kitchen, or kitchen staff or waiting staff. The whole idea was to drink at the bar or take the milkshake away with you, so it was the development of takeaway that started at that particular time, and it was a real revolution," he says.

In an attempt to understand the impact and popularity, the numbers speak volumes. Within five years of the Black & White opening, there were 4,000 registered milk bars across the country, with the concept going on to become global with a knock-on effect in New Zealand, South Africa, some South Pacific islands, Great Britain, and Europe.

"So it was a global phenomenon, an Australian export, and it is part of our cultural development. That's why we're celebrating it and it wasn't a British Australian creation, it was a creation by a Greek migrant. The story of the Greek diaspora is one of taking up ideas and transferring them, and then transforming host societies, and then there are knock on effects as the diaspora continues to move and this is an example of that."

To commemorate and honour the significance of the Black & White and its entrepreneurial Greek owner, Janiszewski and photographer Effy Alexakis have reached out to the Sydney City Council, the NSW Government, and the Royal Australian Historical Society to support the placement of an appropriate historical plaque at the milk bar's old site at 24 Martin Place, for which Adams' daughter Helen says they would be "very grateful".

Meanwhile Janiszewski emphasises that it will also be a step in the right direction in helping Australian society better understand its long history of diversity.

"When you walk around a city you will hear a multiplicity of voices in other languages. But then when you look at the plaques here in Sydney, you do not get the understanding that there was a cacophony of other voices, even early on in regard to European settlement, because there's a small amount celebrating people of non-English speaking backgrounds and their contribution to the nation. So we want to add to that … at least before Adams' two daughters pass away, I'd like to see that happen," he says.

Aside from introducing the milk bar to Australia, Adams was also known to be a philanthropist. Helen's son, entrepreneur Adam Gerondis, is honouring his grandfather's memory by carrying on a very special family tradition in his Sydney establishment.

"At least once a year my father used to give all the takings either to a children's home or to some other charity," recalls Helen, "and my son is following the tradition of giving back something to the community that gave back to my father. My father really appreciated and loved Australia."

Adams' daughters, Lilian and Helen.

Photo by Effy Alexakis, from the 'In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians' National Project Archives, Macquarie University, Sydney

To mark the 85th anniversary of the Black & White, on Saturday 4 November, Adam Geronidis is hosting a fundraiser at his Moo Gourmet Burgers store in Bondi (70A Campbell Parade, Bondi Beach, NSW), donating 50 cents from every Little Cow® meal, and $1.00 from every traditional milkshake sold, to The Starlight Children's Foundation.

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