Greek cafes and milk bars not ‘the good old days’ for everyone in Australia

Interviews looking beyond the nostalgia to the other side of the counter

Many Australians born before the mid-1970s have lasting memories of Greek milk bars and cafes and the goodness they had to offer.

Hamburgers and milkshakes were considered special rather than regular indulgences. 

If Dad had enjoyed a particularly prosperous week, on a Saturday evening he might treat the family to a box of Black Cat or Red Tulip chocolates from the top shelf in the local milk bar. Who can forget the bag of cobbers, milk bottles, and teeth for a mere 20 cents?

The milk bar was open when all the other retailers had gone home for dinner. If we needed a bottle of milk or a packet of cigarettes at 9.30 pm on a Sunday night, the shop lights would still be beaming and the hard-working owners were behind the counter more than willing to serve us.

Last year Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski released their well-received publication Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia, documenting the role these evocative outlets played in our lives.

Media personality Lex Marinos wrote in the preface, “The integrity and rigour with which they integrate photography, interviews and historical research contributes fresh images and information to our national narrative.”

Janiszewski, who also works as a historian at Macquarie University, holds the firm belief that Greek-run food-catering enterprises set the agenda and broadly affected the direction of Australian popular culture during the 20th century.

“They were a ‘Trojan Horse’ for cultural Americanisation,” asserts Janiszewski.

“In every suburb and each country town, Greek cafés and milk bars – open all hours, seven days a week – were essentially selling a dream … an American dream, that life could be better, fuller, and richer.”


The Other Side of the Counter

For some Greek Australians, the nostalgia is dampened by memories of a tough family life ‘married’ to the business. 

Tony Savidis returned to Greece with his family in 1977 after growing up in Melbourne.

“My parents, Peter and Katina, migrated to Australia in 1956 from Kozani in Northern Greece. They ran a fish and chip shop in Spotswood first and then two milk bars in Melbourne – one in Brunswick and later in North Melbourne,” Savidis recalls.

“When I was nine years old I started working in the shop in Albion Street, Brunswick. After six months I was able to run the milk bar on my own if Dad needed to go out.”

“I was in there regularly when I was not at school, making the milkshakes and spiders for the customers or working out the markups on goods and pricing them.

“To be honest I hated it. I was embarrassed when my friends came in. I didn’t want them to see me. I was not proud,” he laments.

Documentary photographer Alexakis confirms this was a familiar sentiment amongst traditional Greek families where everyone helps out for the good of the business.

“I worked in my parents’ fish and chip shop from an early age – it was expected, not something we had a choice over. I remember being mortified when I saw school friends at our shop. If they hadn’t seen me I would hide out the back until they left. I was embarrassed because we had to work, our parents spoke bad English and yet my friends would say how lucky we were that we could eat fish and chips any time.” Effy said.

Savidis says that when he looks back on his time growing up in the milk bar environment his biggest regret was that he never had a proper bedroom that he could call his own.

“We always lived behind the milk bar and to be honest the residences were never very big. My bedroom was the stock room for the shop so it was full[ed] with cartons of cigarettes.

“I can remember waking up every morning to the sound of the manual cash register. I came to hate that sound. It wasn’t until after I came to Greece that I got the sound out of my head.

“My schoolmates would talk about their bedrooms at home and it just made me sad. To be honest I cried a lot in those days,” he revealed.

“Brunswick was quite a tough place. There were a lot of Italians in the area and we Greeks would argue with them.”

“The British Australians didn’t like us at all. We spoke funny and ate weird food. I got into fights. One time I was running away and a knife was thrown and landed in the grass next to me.”

“Now Greeks and their food are celebrated in Australia,” Savidis said with a wry smile. 

(L-R) Tony Savidis, with his father Peter and mum Katina (holding his baby sister Athina). The shop was in Albion Street, Brunswick, photographed circa 1971.

Family is Everything

The importance of family can never be underestimated in Greek culture. Working together to run milk bars and cafes bears witness to this.

However owners and families sacrificed much-needed social and relaxation time.

In their book Alexakis and Janiszewski have documented these recollections of sacrifice.

Evanglia Dascarolis, whose family ran the Popular Cafe in Cootamundra, said, “we never went on a family holiday …. we rarely celebrated events – everyone had to work.”

Katherine Paxinos’ family had the Red Spot Cafe in Port Adelaide. She felt confined by her responsibilities saying, “I wanted to be like the other young girls, but it was my duty to help.”

Savidis explains that this was just the life they had when he was a child and he never knew any different.

“Our milk bar was open from early in the morning until late at night seven days a week. Even on public holidays like Christmas if my father tried to close the shop for a few hours there would be someone knocking on the window after cigarettes or soft drinks or something else. It meant we never had dinner together or visited extended family because someone always had to be in the shop,” Savidis recalls.

“My dad was a good person. He taught me to drive on the streets after midnight when the shop was shut. Even though all he wanted to do was go to bed after a long hard day he still took the time to do that.”

“My sister Athina is 11 years younger than me, I have memories of Mum pushing her pram back and forth behind the counter in the shop with one hand while she served a customer with the other. Other times I would be entrusted to take her to the park so Mum could work.”

“I played team volleyball in high school. The guys would go out after our matches and have something to eat or drink. I would always have to go back to the shop instead. That upset me a little bit.”

Health Concerns

The extraordinarily long hours, arduous work, and lack of rest time took its toll on owners and families, leading to future health issues.

“I remember that my father’s toes would be bleeding. A result of the hours he spent in the milk bar working on his feet,” Savidis said.

“The hours were very very long. There was money to be made but it was a hard life.”

“Six months after selling our North Melbourne milk bar and returning to Greece my father passed away.”

“My mother had lung problems that had been attributed to the air conditioning that was constantly operating in our milk bars.

The weather in Greece was seen as a good option to help her recover so we returned,” he recalled.

Alexakis tells a similar story

“From my own family my father had a fatal heart attack in his mid-50s while his parents in Greece lived long healthy lives into their late 80s.”

“There have been studies that confirm this – that migrants change eating and social behaviours which impact on their health,” Effy said.

Turn Back Time

While many look on the 1960s as a golden period for childhood in Australia, not everybody was living the dream.

“If I had my childhood again I wouldn’t want to grow up with my family in milk bars,” Savidis said.

“Unless of course they could have 9.00 am to 5.00 pm operating times. 

Somehow I don’t think that would work,” Tony says with a chuckle.

Cafes and Milk Bars of Australia Part 2

Alexakis and Janiszewski describe their first ‘Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia’, which has gone into reprint, as an overview: an introduction to the theme, and historical background. The second, (due to be published in 2018), will delve deeper into themes and stories.