In Australia, a milk bar is a suburban local general store or café. Similar terms include tuck shops, delicatessens or “delis”, and corner shops or corner stores (although by definition these are different establishments). Milk bars are traditionally a place where people pick up newspapers, and fast-food items like fish and chips and hamburgers, and where people can purchase milkshakes and snacks. They are essentially a smaller scale suburban form of the Convenience Store but are more likely to be “Mum and Pop” small business and not larger franchised operations.
The first business using the name “milk bar” was started in India in 1930 by an Englishman, James Meadow Charles when he opened “Lake View Milk Bar” at Bangalore. The concept soon spread to the United Kingdom, where it was encouraged by the Temperance Society as a morally acceptable alternative to the pub, and over 1,000 milk bars had opened nationally by the end of 1936. Milk bars were known in the United States at least as early as 1940 as evidenced by contemporary radio recordings.
By the late 1940s, milk bars had evolved to not only sell groceries, but also be places where young people could buy ready-made food and non-alcoholic drinks, and could socialise. Milk bars often used to include jukeboxes and pinball machines (later upgraded to video games), with tables and chairs to encourage patrons to linger and spend more money.
The milk bar as a social venue was gradually replaced by fast food franchises, such as McDonald’s, and shopping malls. Much of the elaborate decor has disappeared from the remaining milk bars. They are still found in many areas, often serving as convenience stores.
Milk bars in Australia today almost universally sell ice creams, lollies, chocolate bars, soft drinks, newspapers, bread and occasionally fast food or cigarettes. Most also serve milkshakes. Although there are far fewer milk bars than there were during the 1970s and 80s due to changing shopping habits, most people living in suburban areas still have a milk bar within walking distance or a short drive of their home.
In the United Kingdom, the National Milk Bar franchise was founded by Robert William Griffiths as an ordinary café / restaurant chain which is related to the original milk bars in name only. Once numbering around 20 outlets, which were located in Wales and near the Welsh border in England, now only one remains. In the UK, corner shops serve a similar function to milk bars in modern Australia, providing everyday groceries, sweets, newspapers and such.
There is a campaign in the UK to encourage school children to consume more dairy products, by installing ‘milk bars’ in schools. The idea is that if the dairy products are attractively presented and properly stored, the children will be more willing to buy them. The organisers behind the project work to develop links with school caterers, so that the handling of milk and dairy produce can be improved, and they promote milk consumption and encourage milk drinking to become a habit that will be carried into adulthood. The milk bar project has been extremely successful in Scotland for 18 years, and it is currently being extended across England and Wales.
A “dairy bar” is the term for a similar restaurant/store common in the Northeastern United States, especially Upstate New York, which is a large producer of dairy products. A “malt shop” (named for the ingredient in a malted milkshake) is very similar to a milk or dairy bar, serving milkshakes and soft drinks as well as limited foods, such as hamburgers and sandwiches. Although there are still a few around, these have largely fallen out of fashion in favor of fast food.
The term bar mleczny (milk bar) in Poland is used to describe popular and cheap cafeterias from the communist era that still exist today. They provide a wide range of government-subsidised meals. In 2011 however the Polish Government began to withdraw their subsidies, and this has led to protests by people opposed to their closure.