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The owner of Australia’s oldest original milk bar has been inundated with offers of help after his rundown premises was closed by the council for being unsafe.
Mr Nicholas Fotiou, aged in his 80s, who operates the historic 1939 Olympia Milk Bar in Stanmore, in Sydney’s inner west, has received calls from builders, architects, plumbers, carpenters and electricians, all hoping to help him restore the landmark shop and allow him to re-open.
“But he won’t accept help, and wants to remain private, even though I told him of the huge support,” said his friend Effy Alexakis. “He’s doing what he can at his pace.
“People forget he’s in his eighties and has always kept himself apart.”
Some well-wishers have even suggested starting a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for the essential repairs as the old Greek milk bar, with some of its original 1930s features still intact, is a well-loved local feature.
An Olympia Milk Bar Fan Club site has now been set up on Facebook, with lots of good wishes from admirers for Mr Fotiou, who bought the premises in 1959 with his brother, who died in 1981.
But sadly the milk bar on Parramatta Road is now virtually uninhabitable after the front part of the ceiling collapsed a few days after the Inner West Council closed it down two weeks’ ago.
It was originally thought that it might need minor repairs but a closer inspection of the building has found its condition is much worse than expected.
The reclusive Mr Fotiou is understood to be no longer sleeping upstairs as the floors are too rickety, and has been seen sleeping in a chair behind the counter instead. He still prefers to spend his days in the shop, however, and is reluctant to move on from what’s been his life-long passion.
A spokesperson for the Inner West Council said the council was continuing to work with Mr Fotiou and a family member to find an acceptable long-term solution to the problem.
Independent Inner West councillor Pauline Lockie said everyone would love to see such an important heritage site preserved.
“We’re very conscious that a lot of its heritage value comes from the way it’s used as a milk bar and, for that, you have to have someone to run it,” she said.
“It’s a complex, sensitive issue and not as simple as fixing it up, sorting out the safety issues and then it’s ready to re-open. It’s an important part of our vanishing heritage across Sydney.”
But the difficulty was that Mr Fotiou was a very proud man and didn’t accept help easily, said another of his friends Leonard Janiszewski, a Macquarie University history academic and co-author of the book, Greek Cafes and Milk Bars of Australia.
“He wants to fix things under his own steam,” he said. “He does want to get everything fixed up and re-open again. He wants his life back, and that’s tied up with the Olympia Milk Bar.”
Mr Janiszewski said reopening the business would be particularly fitting given it had been 85 years since the first milk bar opened in Australia – the Black and White 4d Milk Bar in Sydney’s Martin Place, a 1932 site now occupied by the ANZ Bank.
There’s currently a campaign to have a plaque put there to commemorate the original building which was stormed by 5000 people on its first day of opening and then 27,000 people every week over its first five years in business.
By 1937 there were 4000 milk bars across Australia, with the Olympia now the oldest one still standing. The 1912 building was converted into a milk bar in 1939, at the height of their popularity.
“Milk bars played such an important role in Australia’s development,” said Mr Janiszewski. “They were responsible, for instance, for the idea of take-away in this country.”
Now milk bars are in vogue again, with new ones being set up in Sydney, Melbourne and other cities and regional towns, all heavily steeped in retro nostalgia.
The Olympia’s many well-wishers hope it survives to take advantage of this new wave of popularity.