Jerry's Milk Bar
My parents’ first business in Australia was a milk bar. Like many immigrants, they spoke very little English and learnt on the job from their customers. For years my mother thought the English word for bread was “Granny Davis”, a brand now long gone.
My father’s day started at 4am, when he would prepare the shelves for bread and milk deliveries.
And my mother, not long out of bed after him, would clean the fridges, drink toxic amounts of black coffee and throw together my school lunch. They worked 12-15 hour days, seven days a week.
As a second job, my father delivered sausages for the local continental butcher. By the time I was 10 I knew more about sausages than Matt Preston, and I hadn’t been past Footscray. We lived behind the shop, which was the only reason we managed to spend time together as a family.
Side-street milk bars were everywhere then and, according to the Encyclopedia of Melbourne, in the early 1950s milk bars sold nearly three-quarters of Melbourne’s confectionary, ice-cream and soft drinks, and in the early 1960s had nearly 20 per cent of total food sales. They were always within walking distance for everyone in the neighbourhood and a hub where locals could meet up for a chinwag or yell at their kids, who were usually playing out the front of the shop.
It was a safe place to share problems. My parents knew everything about everyone; the shop counter was regularly transformed into a confessional as if the customer and my parents were in separate compartments, speaking to each other through a lattice. I soon learnt to walk away if customers were whispering.
Jerry’s Milk Bar, in Barkly Street, Elwood, was a bona fide milk bar from 1915 until 1964, when Jerry Pantelios took over and sold cigarettes and milk, but mostly Jerry sold fresh oysters straight out of an ice-filled bucket. There wasn’t a lot of stock in Jerry’s shop but it remained a place for locals to meet. Sadly, in1984 Jerry died upstairs above his shop. Several owners have manned the counter since then, all of them making changes to the ambience and menu.
The shop still has the charm and look of a milk bar, but now it’s a café with the full shebang of muffins, panini, salads and coffee with any milk or milk substitute available. But the walls of Jerry’s Milk Bar are soaked in essence-of-milk-bar; it remains a familiar and friendly place for locals. Frank and Shirl have been coming in every day for 62 years and didn’t stop coming when current owner Andrew Harris arrived to find 4000 eggs floating in the cool room and the shop waterlogged in the 2011 Elwood floods.
Andrew leaps from table to table like a panther, sharing secrets and taking orders while all the time remembering (miraculously) how everyone likes their coffee. Customers value his presence behind the counter and in their lives.
Only a few weeks after the floods, a driver smashed through the front window, decimating the shop again. The locals rallied and Andrew continued trading from the courtyard at the back of the shop.
Jerry’s Milk Bar is more than their local shop, it’s part of their family.
Cornering the market with a mixed bag of tasty treats
Milk bar (corner Murray and York streets, Prahran, at the roundabout)
There are few clearer perspectives into the social changes we’ve witnessed over the past 30 years than simply stepping into a milk bar. For upwardly mobile migrant families the milk bar is where their new life often begins. First it was the Italians, then the Greeks and, more recently, the Indian and Asian families who fill their shelves with items we know, but, thankfully, manage to slot in their own culinary ingredients as well. The bread shelf in my local milk bar (run by an Indian family) displays packets of roti, pita bread and a sliced low-fat, high protein multigrain. It’s the United Nations of bread!
A bag of mixed lollies
In my primary-school days there was at least one milk bar next to every school. Suburban primary schools were within walking distance, so the walk home after school always started with a visit to the milk bar to buy a bag of mixed lollies. Like the rest of us, this is where Wayne Swan probably learnt to create a budget. I’d love to know how he rationed his pocket money to maximise the number of redskins, bananas, cobbers and mint leaves he could get in his lolly bag. I can hear him now: “We’ve got solid domestic growth, we’ve got job growth and we’ve got our mixed lollies!”
I’m not talking about a smoothie made in a blender with fruit, nuts, seaweed and yoghurt. Or the frozen premade goop of milk, sweetened flavouring agent and a thickening agent that oozes out of a machine into a paper cup. No! I’m talking about scoops of ice-cream, fruit or chocolate flavouring and milk poured into an aluminium container, blended in a milkshake machine that rattles like an old lawn mower and poured into a tall glass with toppings and a straw. And the secret ingredient is? Malt. Your bona fide milk bar always has a messy tin of malt standing next to the milkshake machine.