What happened to the iconic Aussie milk bar?
They have faded from our streets but the iconic Aussie milk bar is far from forgotten.
The Rowena Corner Store is a favourite for foodies from all over Melbourne. Con Coustas has owned this inner-city Richmond milk bar for 16 years, retaining vestiges of the store’s original look with authentic signs and retro-style tables and chairs.
Con even brought in a set designer to create fixtures that looked like they dated from 1956, when the milk bar first opened. It was part of a small strip of shops that are long since gone.
Food and coffee are the key drawcard, but Con also sells milkshakes – ‘The Aussie’ has salted caramel with a kiss of Vegemite – and gourmet groceries including tinned sardines from Portugal and peanut butter from New Zealand.
“We’re primarily a cafe but people still come to us for milk or when they run out of bread. We service a lot of locals. We’re the town square, the watering hole,” says Con.
“These kinds of places have always been local hubs, and every neighbourhood needs one of those. I enjoy living and working in a place where I can meet people, have a laugh and get a decent coffee. You become part of people’s lives – and you don’t find that at a Westfield.”
Once the cornerstone of neighbourhood communities from Northcote to Nhill, the humble milk bar is becoming a rarity, collateral damage in the race towards one-stop-shop convenience and 24/7 trading.
While a few savvy operators like Con Coustas are finding ways to beat the odds by reimagining the business model, thousands of small corner shops have struggled to survive the onslaught of convenience stores, service stations and supermarkets with extended trading hours.
There are no reliable figures on how many milk bars there were in their heyday, but Australian Food News has estimated that in the 1970s there were more than 6000 in Victoria alone.
“Go back to the ’70s and milk bars were very much part of what was happening in the neighbourhood ... But then the world changed,” says Jeff Rogut, head of the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores, which represents more than 6000 retail stores including 7-Eleven, BP and Caltex.
“Milk bars lost their relevance,” he says. “They didn’t innovate or upgrade stores. A lot of the remaining milk bars are covered with posters offering phone cards that people no longer buy. They can be quite dingy and many of them are closed after hours when they need to be open. They haven’t looked at areas of growth and are operating on nostalgia.”