What happened to the iconic Aussie milk bar?

Living Well | Story: Sarah Marinos | Photos: Shannon Morris | Posted on 12 February 2020

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.


The Rowena Corner Store is a favourite for foodies from all over Melbourne


“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.”

But some, like Lisa Clarke, who owns the Little River General Store, are firmly focused on the future. Lisa has worked hard to make her shop, in the shadow of the You Yangs, the beating heart of this little community. 

The store’s Facebook page has about 18,000 followers – even though the local population is only 2000 – and features regular updates about lost-and-found pets and upcoming events. 

The shop has a petrol bowser, an Australia Post facility, a busy sandwich bar and hot food counter, and shelves and fridges filled with everything from nappies and L-plates to frozen ravioli and pet food. 

The coffee machine is a lure for tradies on the way to work and parents heading home from school drop-off. And the mixed lollies are popular with everyone from toddlers to cyclists en route to the nearby national park.  

“I didn’t want this place to be sold and to become just a petrol station because people in Little River need this store,” says Lisa, who took over the business three years ago. “When we opened, 30 per cent of locals came here and now it’s around 90 per cent.

“These places are about personality and connection. When we had fires in the area, people naturally gravitated here to comfort each other. The fire trucks pulled in and we kept the shop open for the emergency services. If something happens in Little River, people often come here to find out what is going on.”

With a growing population, and the nearest supermarket a 10-minute drive away, the Little River store highlights the difference between metropolitan and regional Victoria. With less competition and a captive customer base, country milk bars that have diversified often fare better than their city cousins.

“Milk bars like the Little River business still service the community and they receive support from that community. They see kids and families grow up and everyone knows everyone,” says Eamon Donnelly, author of The Milk Bars Book. “In the cities and suburbs it’s a different story,” he says, “due to seven-day trading, extended opening hours of supermarkets, the rise of 7-Elevens and the fact that more people have a car, so it’s no longer inconvenient to go to the supermarket to buy a few things.  

“But there are some success stories in the city. Coffee is a big survival tactic, particularly if it’s mixed with nostalgia. Some milk bars keep the legacy of the business with retro signage and milkshakes that trigger our childhood memories of going to the milk bar and that glorious feeling of stepping into a paradise of sweets and treats.”

Coburg’s Harding Street Milk Bar
Phoebe and Andy Lee, owners of Coburg’s Harding Street Milk Bar

Locals flock in to Coburg’s Harding Street Milk Bar for lattes and espressos


In Melbourne’s north Phoebe and Andy Lee, owners of Coburg’s Harding Street Milk Bar, have built up a loyal customer base but are always looking for new ways to ease tight profit margins.

While traditional milk bars around them have closed, the hard-working couple have been open for business for 11 years. “Our first business was a small kiosk in a shopping centre selling socks and underwear. But when we had our son it was easier to have a business where we could live and work. A milk bar was the obvious choice,” Phoebe says.

A bright-red coffee machine has been a big hit in the store and, as locals flock in for lattes and espressos, the couple have introduced fresh cakes. The shelves are well stocked with grocery staples and there’s a key-cutting service plus an ATM.

“Customers come here to buy milk, chocolate, chips, newspapers, bread and cigarettes. More than 95 per cent of our customers are local and more than half are elderly. They don’t drive so they rely on us for the basics,” Phoebe says. 

The couple belong to a chat group of milk-bar owners across Australia who share business tips and swap information about where to buy stock at the best prices. 

“People expect to pay a little extra for convenience, but if your prices are too high you end up with less customers. We keep profit margins very low and try and make money through volume,” Phoebe explains. 

“We’ve been in this neighbourhood for so many years, our customers are like friends. People wave as they pass by or they drop in for a chat and I enjoy that connection.”

Yarragon milkbar
Yarragon milkbar owners Andrew Trewern and wife
Yarragon milkbar

At the Yarragon Milkbar, hot food makes up 70 per cent of trade, with lollies, drinks, ice-creams and milkshakes accounting for the rest


In Yarragon, West Gippsland, Andrew Trewern has also had to move with the times to keep his business alive. He took over the local milk bar in the former Commonwealth Bank building in 2010 after it had been closed for a year.  

At first, Andrew and his wife ran a traditional milk bar business, selling basic supplies and running a hot-food counter. But after a supermarket expanded in the 1500-person town four years ago, they felt they had to take a new approach. 

Today, hot food including fish and chips, souvlakis and fancy hamburgers make up 70 per cent of trade, with lollies, drinks, ice-creams and milkshakes accounting for the rest. The days are long – Andrew is in the shop by 6.30am and doesn’t leave until around 8.30pm – but he can’t imagine doing anything else. “I’m a country boy with no ambition to move to the city,” he says. 

“I like the peace and quiet and I enjoy walking down the street and seeing people I know. But it is hard work. You can never say, ‘I don’t feel like working today’. In a normal job you’d earn the same amount of money whether you did 100 per cent or 40 per cent but when you do 40 per cent here, people notice.

“There will be an end point at some time. One elderly couple told me they had a takeaway and milk bar for years and loved it. But then one day her husband had an argument about the freshness of their bread and ended up throwing a loaf at a customer. The business was on the market the next day!”

Yarragon milkbar
Yarragon milkbar


Australia’s first milk bar

The Black & White 4d Milk Bar in Martin Place, Sydney, is generally regarded as the first of its kind in Australia. It was opened in 1932 by Greek-born Joachim Tavlarides, known locally as Mick Adams. After visiting soda shops in America he was inspired to open a store selling milkshakes in the heart of the harbour city. Other enterprising folk built on this success, with small corner shops offering not only milkshakes but also the familiar mixed lollies, ice-creams, newspapers, cigarettes, bread and milk.
 

Milk bar milestones

1932: Australia’s first milk bar opens in Sydney.
1950s: Milkshake bars buy into groceries. Corner-shop businesses boom.  
1977: Australia’s first 7-Eleven opens in Oakleigh. 
1987: Saturday-afternoon trading starts in Victoria.
1996: Full Sunday trading statewide, with supermarkets eating into milk bars’ seven-day trade.
2008: The launch of the iPhone and mobile phone plans, signals the end for pre-paid phone cards sold at milk bars. 
2012: Melbourne’s myki public transport card arrives, killing Metcard sales. The number of milk bars in Victoria has fallen to 1500 from an estimated 6000 in the 1970s.
2019: Convenience stores dominate the few proud milk-bar survivors.