The slow death of the milk bar in Australia
The milk bar, convenience store or local deli used to be a staple for suburbs around Australia, but they are dying a slow death.
For decades, families would flock to get lollies, ice-cream, fresh milk or bread or to pick up the daily newspaper.
These days are all over. This is thanks to supermarkets, petrol stations and on-demand smartphones that have suffocated the market.
“The milk bar really hasn’t just shut up shop overnight, it’s been happening for at least 40 years, but now it’s pretty rapid,” said Eamon Donnelly, the author of a coffee table book documenting Australian milk bars to The New Daily.
“I’ll see real estate listings for old milk bars on a weekly basis now. They just can’t sustain the business – the rents are huge and if you don’t have that traffic and customer base then it’s really difficult to see it surviving.”
Many old milk bars have been converted into homes or cafes, and Mr Donnelly said that for millions of Australians, a trip to the corner store was a part of growing up.
“Milk bars were a treasure trove or an Aladdin’s cave of lollies, sweets and ice creams and colour – that’s the thing everyone remembers,” he recalled.
“It was that first taste of independence. It was the first place many people bought something of their own. It’s such a vivid Australian memory, going up to the milk bar on a Saturday with your friends and getting a couple of ice-creams and just hanging out for hours and hours, before social media and before phones.”
The first milk bar was set up in Martin Place, Sydney back in 1932. It was a very glamorous experience, according to Mr Donnelly.
“Instead of selling sodas he’d sell milkshakes and hence why he called the business a milk bar – they’d sell milkshakes and you’re served on a bar,” Mr Donnelly said.
“It was very Hollywood style. It was really glamorous.
“Then all of these little corner stores in the suburbs thought, ‘We’ll sell milkshakes as well and we’ll put “milk bar” on the business’.
“Seventy years later, milk bar is just part of the vernacular now – we still call that little shop a milk bar even though you can’t get a milkshake anywhere.
“A lot of people think that the milk bar was named after the place where you just go and get your milk.”
Mr Donnelly has said that milk bars have always had strong ties to immigrant communities.
“It was a way to get that migrant food culture into Australia,” he said.
“Before milk bars, the Greeks used to buy olive oil from the chemist – it was medicinal.
“They offer money transfers now, dry cleaning – a lot of the signage is being updated to other languages.”
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However, oil and gas giants have funds that the lowly milk bar just don’t have.
“We’ve seen the large oil companies take the lead in terms of reinventing convenience,” said Jeff Rogut, CEO of the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores.
“They’ve continued to reinvent the model, continued to upgrade stores and, importantly, upgrade facilities and the products offered inside stores.”
“We’ve seen a demise nationally of the true community corner store,” he said.
“Many kept doing all the things they’ve been doing all the years, with stores that had not been upgraded, front windows plastered with phone card posters, dusty-styled dingy-type outlets, not opening extended hours.
“They really had to become smarter. They had to become more professional retailers – they couldn’t really rely on the old [method of] standing behind the counter and hoping people would cross their doorstop.
“It’s about continually innovating and changing the business – should I be selling coffee, offering fresh pastries, freshly baked bread, things like that, that will actually get people to the store.”