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The birth of the milk bar

The humble milk bar is widely recognised as an Australian suburban institution. But what isn’t known is that these convenience stores on local street corners are at the heart of the Greek diaspora experience in Australia

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The birth of the milk bar

Schoolchildren outside the Black & White 4d. Milk Bar at Martin Place, Sydney, NSW, in 1934. Mick Adams is standing in the centre, at the back of the group of children. Photo: Courtesy of L Keldoulis, from the 'In their own image: Greek-Australians National Project Archives'

10 Jul 2011

In 1932, two events happened in Sydney that would ultimately shape the Australian experience. The most well-known was the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The lesser known was Greek migrant Joachim Tavlaridis opening the first ever milk bar in Australia, thus creating a long-held tradition that milk bars are at the core of the Greek Australian migrant experience.

Macquarie University academics Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis have disputed the previously held belief that Sydney's Burt Brothers opened the first milk bar in 1934. The true history of the milk bar is "its Greek and American origins, international distribution and local architectural style", they argue. Their research has found that Greek migrant Tavlaridis was the first businessman to open the traditional milk bar after he set up the Black and White 4d. Milk Bar in Sydney's Martin Place in November 1932.

Tavlaridis - who later adopted the name Mick Adams - migrated from Greece at the age of 14. He started by working odd jobs in restaurants and butcher shops to save up enough money to build his own business. Food businesses, take-away shops, restaurants and delis were an easy and viable business option for many Greek migrants in Australia at that time. They represented so much to the community.

They allowed newly arrived migrants a way to assimilate in their adopted country, they created job opportunities and a safe haven for many Greek migrants. With food, Greek migrants were given a new way to communicate with their adopted nation, which would leave language at the door. Through these businesses, Greek migrants would learn new words, skills and experiences that would develop not only their social status, but also provide a community hub for all. Little did 14 year-old Tavlaridis realise when he arrived in Australia, but he would grow up to help build an Australian icon.

The milk bar story is not just a story of the Greek and American influence in Australian society, it is also a story of belonging. Often family-owned, these businesses provided employment opportunities for people in the local community. The impact of Adams' original Black and White 4d. Milk Bar was felt throughout Australia and overseas as the term was imported to the United Kingdom.

"Milk bars and other Greek cafes and restaurants were resting stops, places people met up for business and also where lovers met," Janiszewski says. Lilian Keldoulis (nee Adams), Mick Adams' youngest daughter, was only one year-old when her father opened the first Australian milk bar. Some of her fondest childhood memories are from the milk bar. She remembers coming home from school to sit at the bar with a milkshake, quite possibly making her the envy of her peers at the time.

"My favourite [flavour] was probably chocolate. I used to love sitting down and watching people going past and coming in," she says. What defined Adams' milk bar was not just that it sold only milkshakes, or even that it had a mechanical cow which drew crowds out front, but that it became a community centre of sorts. Keldoulis explains that the milk bar became a popular meeting place for Sydney's city dwellers as well as an integral part of the Greek and local communities. Every year, Adams would give a day's takings from the milk bar to the Dellwood Children's Home.

With a flourish Keldoulis describes her father as being "an Australian first and Greek second". "He was very grateful for the country, that he used to say, 'The world is my country and doing good is my religion'."

Thinking back, Keldoulis says her father's business even took customers away from the pub across the road. "It was the Depression years. Eventually the people from the hotel would rather come over and have a milkshake rather than a beer because it was more nutritious and only cost four pence," Keldoulis says. Mick Adams was not the first person to sell milkshakes in Australia; similar food catering establishments operated under the term 'American bars'.

However, apart from its name and, initially, its milkshake-only menu, Janiszewski explains that Adams' milk bar was different because it broke away from the sit-down meal affair of other Greek-run businesses of the time, such as oyster saloons and cafes. "Adams had the idea to take away table service. They wanted to make business as efficient as possible to get a lot of customers," Janiszewski says. Adams did exactly this. Wanting to serve Australia a slice of the American Pie, the Black and White 4d. Milk Bar's main feature was the bar counter with limited seats on one side and milkshake makers and soda pumps on the other. This interior fit out was inspired by his observations of early 1930s American soda 'parlors'.

It set his business apart from all the other similar 'parlors' of the day and gave birth to the milk bars we know and love today. What's more, for Adams, as well as many other Greek business owners, the milk bar was a stepping stone for future generations to fulfil their dreams. "He wanted to be a lawyer if he had more education," Keldoulis says. "My sister eventually studied criminal law after she got married and became a barrister."

For wider communities who love establishments like the Black and White 4d. Milk Bar, Adams and many otherw Greek entrepreneurs like him turned a basic American offering into a mainstay of Australian culture, with a Greek shake.

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Comments

Mick was my grandfather and what I have always admired about him was that he was so able to adapt so quickly to his new environment. He changed his name to fit in, donated to the local charities and remained open to new ideas. He was also very disciplined and would never wait more than 5 minutes for someone to turn up for a meeting saying"Time waits for no man".
This is a great article and it's also sad to see that this culture has gone. There was a time when every corner had a milkbar, when the milbar was a communal centre of sorts, which helped people. How often I remember as a young boy my mother going to the milkbar and buying food and basics on credit when we did not have money, imagine doing that now in a cold mega supermarket. Lambis
I had uncles in the Milk Bar business back in the 1950s. But if you want a first check out my late uncle Herakles who opened the Hellas Cake Shop in Richmond and who introduced Greek sweets to Melbourne on a commercial scale.
Most sources claim that the first milk bar to open in Sydney was the Black and White in Martin Place in the city in 1932. But there are other claims for Burt’s in the 1920s. Perhaps it all depends on the definition. Early milk bars were just that – bars where the product was a non-alcoholic milkshake. Later versions added some seating, served snack food and provided a juke box to belt out the latest music. They became a place for young people to gather, and like Burt’s at The Cross, were often located close to picture theatres.

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