Milk bar memories

Published in The Age, more than a decade ago, and still a relevant love letter to a lost Australian icon – the humble milk bar.

Local milk bars were once the mainstay of local shopping centres. They were open when everything else was shut and they specialised in milk, bread and personalised service. Now they are more likely to be shut when every thing stays open.  

When I was about six years old, one of the greatest treats you could have was a Dairy Queen from Cooney’s Milk Bar. For those of you born yesterday, let me explain.

A Dairy Queen was the olden day equivalent of a McDonald’s cone, but much bigger, creamier and richer. And a milk bar was a small corner shop that sold bottled milk and unsliced bread wrapped in tissue paper, a few dusty tins of Heinz soup and Johnson’s Baby Powder, cigarettes without any warnings on them, and of course lollies. Raspberries, mint leaves, cobbers, freckles, musk sticks and eucalyptus balls  – old fashioned sweets that were sold by the penny (and later the cent), picked out patiently by someone who wasn’t wearing white latex gloves.

Cooney’s Milk Bar in Mentone was tucked under the wide veranda in the main shopping centre, its contents dark and mysterious until you opened the wooden-framed flywire door with taut springs that slammed authoritatively shut behind. There, old Miss Cooney was like the Dairy Queen machine, a permanent fixture.

 Thin with grey wavy hair, Miss Cooney was the antithesis of the modern day checkout chick. Her smile was earned rather than handed over with the goods automatically, and I do not recall that she ever told us to “have nice day”. Nor did she wear a nametag because everyone knew that this was Cooney’s milk bar and she was Miss Cooney.

I am remembering this, no savoring, because it has suddenly occurred to me that there are no milk bars in the suburb where I live – at least none that I know of.

But I may be wrong, so I call Allen Roberts, the executive director of the Confectionery and Mixed Business Association of Victoria, who assures me that there is one about two kilometres away – a lone shop on a busy road surrounded by houses. “At least as far as I know it’s still there. Let me know if it isn’t,” he laughs.

 Well, it isn’t. The shop is there, with all its fittings, but it is closed. “For Sale/Lease, Be the King of Your own Destiny,” announces the billboard beside it. The former king has gone to Queensland, but assures potential buyers that the long established business, over 40 years old, is still a goer for the right person.

Roberts is not surprised. He knew the owner was in Queensland and various managers had been installed.  But he, like many others in small business, is optimistic. ”It might be resurrected yet,” he says.

But he admits that being king of your own destiny is a lot more difficult in these days of 24-hour supermarket trading. “There are definitely fewer milk bars, there’s no doubt about it – even than five or six years ago, when the supermarkets finally got the open slather trading hours, it took away the little bit of a niche advantage, the milk bars had. It used to be after 6pm at night through the week it was the milk bars’ turn to have a share of the trade.”

In those days, most supermarkets shut around noon on Saturday and were closed on Sundays. When 24-hour, seven-day trading came in, it took away between 20-25 per cent of the business that was coming to milk bars, Roberts says.

“Unfortunately, anyone in small business will tell you that if you lose 25 per cent it’s more than just the cream, it’s the milk. The first 75 per cent is taken with rent and the running of the business.”

But part of the milk bar’s success for so many years has been its ability to metamorphosise. “Going back 80 years ago we were just confectionery shops,” he says. “Our association 80 years ago was originally the Confectioners’ and Soda Fountain Association.”

After the Second World War, the businesses diversified to become milk bars. “In the ‘50s the battle was on to allow them to sell groceries. For a little while, if they were selling groceries they had to partition off those areas.“

Today, he says it is “open slather” and willingness to work hard is not enough. A milk bar owner needs capital and expert business advice.

“The better or bigger ones that could absorb the blow and then modify their businesses have survived and most of the milk bars you see left today are coping,” Roberts says. “Very often they’re moving into more take away food and sandwiches, becoming general stores in a way.”

The introduction of the GST this week adds an extra burden still but Roberts says the tax office “has done the right thing by milk bars”, and allowed them to use a simplified accounting method so they won’t need to invest in or to buy expensive cash registers or scanning equipment.”

Roberts estimates that there are about 2000 milk bars left in Victoria, about half of which are members of the voluntary association. In the days of “milk licences” you could get figures from the diary authority, “but now there’s no one central authority that has a handle on how many are left.” He suggests calling Peter’s or Streets, but a call to Nestle Dairy, which handles Peter’s, says no such figures are kept.

To younger people the demise of the corner milk bar maybe no big deal. After all, Coles, Safeway and 7 Eleven are all open 24-hours a day. There, the shop assistants are uniformly dressed and uniformly polite with nametags proudly displaying names like CARLEE or SUNNY, which proves that their mothers can’t spell or spent nine months reading strange novels. “Pin number and okay”, they intone a million times a day.

It is much more convenient, I admit. Miss Cooney never gave extra cash out – unless by mistake. But the thing I miss most about milk bars is their individuality. In the days when the milk bar reigned supreme, neither the milk, nor the service was homogenised.

That is why I am dredging up my milk bar memories, which are significant because a milk bar was one of my first homes, my first job was in milk bar and it was there I met my first boyfriend.

My parents ran a milk bar when I was born and my mother often spoke about the neon Peter’s icecream cone that flashed in her bedroom, keeping her awake. 

We moved to Mentone when I was about four, when Cooney’s, Hattam’s and the Singer Sewing shop were part of the streetscape, then to the new suburb of Mulgrave when I was nine, and the milk bar in Wanda Street became the favorite haunt. My sister Juliana and my friends Alison and Sally and I would treck up the hill to buy a Sunny Boys, tetrapak frozen triangles of orange cordial.

The frozen Sunny Boy was a welcome relief from the heat and glare of the new white pavement that snaked around the sharp-edged A.V. Jennings brick veneer homes and the spare blocks of bleached and windswept grass.

Even better was the “free” – the Sunny Boy with “free” printed in yellow or blue or all over its silver lining and which entitled you to another treck up the hill and another Sunny Boy.

Later when we moved back to the beachside suburbs, my first job was in the local milk bar/health food shop in Parkdale. There I would stand, hoping and praying that none of the local workmen would order a hotdog, for the new hotdog machine had turned hot-dog making into an R-rated procedure. I would blush, and sweat as I pierced the long white roll on the stainless steel rod and then tried to force the red, glistening sausage into the narrow hole. 

But it was at the lolly counter, not the hotdog machine, that I met my first boyfriend Stephen. His mother sent him in to check me out, which he did by coming in every day for a week and buying bags full of mixed lollies – just to see the bags of sweets I had to offer when I bent forward to count out his selections.

My second job was next door at the opposition milk bar, where I learned the bewildering fact that people will whinge and moan about milk going up one cent, while never questioning the cost of the chocolate bar that they buy with it on impulse.

And finally, in my third job at a men’s wear and haberdashery shop a few doors down, I learned about retail snobbery. “We’re not in a milk bar now,” the proprietor’s wife sneered as she reprimanded me for rolling up my sleeves one busy Saturday morning.

No, we’re not in a milk bar now, I think as I wait with 12 people or more carrying my 12 items or less (wondering how I ended up with 12 when I only went in for one).

 Now I know the names of the people that serve me because I read them on their nametags, but I never have any call to use them, because there is no conversation beyond: “How are you?” Any cash out? Pin number and okay and thank you, bye.” And despite the fact that I have been a regular customer at my local supermarket for the past three years, no one knows my name or anything about me.

It is this aspect that has been lost since the advent of 24-hour shopping, and perhaps it is this that keeps the remaining milk bars struggling on through 15-hour days. There are still profits to be made in the business, Roberts says, but more than that there are also friends. “Our members who leave say the things that regret leaving most are the friends they made and the being part of the community.”

Kwalker@theage.fairfax.com.au