The Unexpected History of Australia's Milk Bars

There’s more to your local Milk bar than meets the eye

When two Greeks meet they open up a café.

The biggest influx of Greek immigrants came after the Second World War, seeking new homes and opportunity after their country was left desolate and devastated from the Second Great War. They brought with them a tradition and culture that shaped Australia society as we know it today.

Greek’s believed in the American Dream, one of good fortune and new beginnings and because of this, the US saw a massive influx of Greek immigrants during the time. Unfortunately for many Greeks, as America flooded with European immigrants, stricter immigration laws were introduced, leaving many Greeks bereft.

Those who missed out, instead turned to Australia, with the hopes of the world down under becoming a new America.

This build of immigrants in Australia was recognised and utilised. Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell saw Greek immigration as a tool to introduce new trades and build up new business. And so encouraged Greek immigration to Australia even offering Greek immigrants ‘assisted passages’ – paid travel from the Australian Government.

Many Greeks opened their own businesses, the first: “the Oyster King” was opened in New South Wales during the early 1900s. But after the Second World War there became an increasing demand for Americanised food and paraphernalia as Australia slowly became more and more Americanised.

Image: Canberra Dining Rooms and Oyster Saloon, Queanbeyan, NSW, 1914.

Photo courtesy N. George, from the ‘In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians’ National Project Archives, Macquarie University

This prompted many Greek businesses to move away from traditional practices. It was a move to appeal to their changing audiences.

In the early 1930s, a Greek-Australian food caterer created the American-style milk bar.

Was it the Greeks who Americanised Australia?

As demand increased for American goods, so too did the number of Greco-run, American styled milk bars in New South Wales. So much so, that the opening of the first Milk Bar in Martin Place in 1932 attracted thousands of Australians who queued for hours to get a taste of this new American-styled cuisine.

Black & White 4d. Milk Bar Brisbane, Qld, 1933

Source: Milk Bar, Brisbane, Qld, 1933, The official opening of Brisbane’s first ‘American style’ milk bar by the Lord Mayor of Brisbane Alderman John Greene. Mick Adams (Joachim Tavlarides) who created the ‘milk bar’ concept in 1932, is standing on the right (wearing glasses).

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

The popularity of these milk bars grew, and at its peak, New South Wales boasted a whopping 4000 milk bars across the state both rural and central. These milk bars for a time became the local hub for community life. John Tzannes explains:

We gained respect with the locals as we had an identity, a place, purpose in the community of bringing food and a different culture to the community giving them something they didn’t already have.

One such milk bar, The Paragon located in the Blue Mountain’s Katoomba became so popular with the locals, it extended, building a ballroom with elevated dancefloor and tea rooms for meetings and conferences.

Image: The soda fountain was patented in America in 1819, but in 1903 a revolution in design created the ‘front-service’ fountain.

Photo by J. Check, courtesy J. and P. Veneris, from the ‘In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians’ National Project Archives, Macquarie University

The milk bars were art-deco inspired, fit out with duke boxes, arcades and vinyl. Everything you would expect from an American style, rock-n-roll diner was adapted uniquely by Australian- Greek proprietors.

Once described as “the least popular foreigners in Australia”, Greek immigrants were not only becoming well known in Australia but generally more popular,  and this was largely due to recognising Australia’s change of taste, seeing the demand and responding/appealing to it.

“1930s Greek cafés had firmly cemented the growing popularisation of American food catering ideas, technology and products that had been instigated through Australia's earlier Greek-run food catering enterprises including the oyster saloon or 'parlor', the American-style soda/sundae 'parlor' and the American-style milk bar.”

Though the Greek milk bar is currently on its way out of Australia and the majority of the 4000 milk bars in New South Wales, have shut down, the Greek Milk Bar’s….”…legacy and influence remain as an often, almost inescapable, part of the daily lives of many Australians — when drinking a Coke or a flavoured milkshake, frequenting a fast food outlet, munching on a milk chocolate treat or ice cream at the movies, or singing along to the latest popular music hit.”

Header: Boomerang Café, Tsakissiris family, Silkwood, Qld, 1987, Left to right: George, Anthoula, Mick and Anna.

Mick’s uncle (Nick) and father (George) came out from the Greek island of Kastellorizo in 1920 and 1925 respectively and eventually opened the Boomerang Café in partnership. Mick passed away in 1991, but Anthoula continued to run the café with the help of her three children – George, Anna and Irene – until 1995. The shop was left vacant upon her retirement. In 2006, Cyclone Larry, a severe tropical cyclone that hit far north Queensland on 20 March, damaged the building. Later that year, the structure was sold.

Information comes via Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis, authors of Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia

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