The traditional Australian milk bar enjoyed its heyday during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when the influx of migrants from Italy and Greece saw many make their fortunes from these suburban stores. They were on many a street corner & seemed to appear when you least expected to see one.
The floors were always linoleum (lino) and the counters were laminex. Your purchases were added up on butchers paper (no-one had calculators or self calculating tills in those days). You had to hope the proprietor was good at maths!
The typical layout was a long thin shop, with a long counter on one side. At the street end was often a sweet counter selling lollies. This was where children spent countless hours deciding which lollies to choose in their “mixed lolly”bag by pointing grubby little fingers on the glass exclaiming “I’ll have one of those & two of those…..” .
A mainstay was the milkshake mixer, which necessitated having the milk and ice-cream nearby, as well as the flavouring syrups (chocolate, caramel, strawberry, blue heaven) and of course the malt powder (because a malted milkshake was only an extra five cents) & tasted so much better. You had to drink your milk shake in the shop in those days, as the containers were metal & you had to give them back!
There was a grill, and a wide range of hamburgers or steak sandwiches could be cooked to order, featuring the usual Australian accompaniments such as beetroot and fried onions as well as the usual cheese, lettuce and tomato plus variations including egg and pineapple. There was always hot pies, pasties & sausage rolls (with sauce).
Chocolate bars and packets of potato chips were on sale, as were a small but diverse range of other items: boxes of chocolate for last-minute gifts, cigarettes and tobacco, painkillers, packs of tissues, and a few basic groceries such as boxes of cereal and cans of baked beans.
On the other side of the shop from the counter there were usually free-standing cabinets holding soft drinks, flavoured milk in cartons, ice creams such as Paddle Pops (on a stick) or the Triple Treat (layers of ice cream and marshmallow wrapped in chocolate).
On weekends after the newsagent closed you could sometimes get newspapers and a few magazines there too. The milk bar sold a huge range of items, and was open from early morning to late in the evening.
The proprietor was invariably male, and worked the shop together with any of his children who were old enough, and perhaps one or two assistants. His wife was hard at work sourcing ingredients and preparing them “out the back”, jugging this with the role of mother – which was possible because the family usually lived upstairs, above the milk bar.
But every milk bar was different, and reflected the aspirations of its owner. Where I lived, we had a choice of two milk bars, each with a unique difference, one sold Peters Ice Cream & one sold Streets Ice Cream.
The work was hard and the hours were long, yet the Italians and Greeks who ran the milk bars seemed to always have a smile and a cheery greeting, and plenty of time for their customers (adults and children). I think the businesses were generally quite profitable, and every ten years or so the family would return to Europe for a few months to visit the relatives. When the time came for retirement, the sale of the business could yield enough to buy a large and impressive home.
There are still a few traditional milk bars in the cities, but they are more likely to be found in the country towns where they meet the needs of travelers as well as locals, and are often run by long-time Australians. They are usually more spacious than the city equivalents, and the layout more open. The decor may be more utilitarian with tiled floors and no wood, and the food might have more emphasis on sandwiches, pies and sausage rolls. It might not be possible to get a decent cappuccino (or any cappuccino for that matter), but the staples of milk shakes, mars bars and hamburgers are sure to be available.
I particularly remember the Melbourne city milk bars that used to have a miniature juke box on every booth. They were always run by Greeks or Italians & always served spaghetti bolognese (without fail). The only downside was the spaghetti always came with that parmesan cheese in a shaker that smelled like vomit. I only had to catch a whiff of someone else’s spaghetti order going past & I was ready to puke!