The Olympia Milk Bar: Dracula’s Den or Parramatta Road’s Treasure?

When passing by, your eye might be caught by what some would deem structurally unsound, but for others the Olympia Milk Bar is a step back in time to a place when milkshakes were only $2.90. Catherine Williams reports:

Day by day commuters pass through Parramatta road, completely tuning out to the history that sleeps within the concrete standing either side of the road. For those who reside in Sydney’s west, this decaying old world is just another part of their journey. Walking down Parramatta road is like wandering through an industrial suburb in China Town. Each store is large in size, bright in color but completely vacant. Amongst these warehouses, there lay the other decomposing buildings that together form Sydney’s varicose vein, Parramatta Road.

At 190 Parramatta Road, squats an old decrepit milk bar waiting to drift away with the wind. Either side of this demolition zone sit abandoned stores, both with optimistic ‘for lease’ signs. Lodged in between, the Olympia Milk Bar appears to be steadily deteriorating; its exterior is timeworn and the building looks to be abandoned. If you were not too absorbed by the store’s external appearance, you would be able to see through the window a frail old man, waiting patiently inside. Bruce Zhang, owner of the Annandale Friendly Grocer located directly across the road, notes that the shop “[is] always open. No weekend, no public holiday, every day open at 9 and close at 10.”

The shop window that once offered a view of the counter where a delicious milkshake might be mixed, is now held together by recycled cardboard and covered in old chocolate and soft drink advertisements, dating back 30 years. Upstairs are the remnants of what was an old hair salon, The Olympia Salon. This is believed to have belonged to the owner’s wife.

Rather than the promise a milk bar would usually hold of soft drinks, chocolates and of course milkshakes, the Olympia instead lay dormant. No energy, no excitement, not even light. Bruce Zhang pointed out, “He never turns the lights on, [not] even at night.” The milk bar is dark except for the far left back corner where a fluorescent light globe remains lit. The advertisements that circulate the store’s walls and windows create the darkness that absorbs the rest of the room. “No people, no lights. When people, lights!” exclaims the owner. Could this then mean that there are no people coming to visit him, if so, does he want visitors?

No one nearby knows much about the milk bar and its owner; whose name is a toss up between Nicholas and John Fotiou, his brother being the alternative to himself. A worker at the news agency across the road commented, “Everybody asks who, I don’t know nothing, what can I do?” A lot of locals believe his name to be Kirie, whilst others call him “Dr Death” or “Dracula”.

Those brave enough to enter ‘Drac’s Milk Bar’, would be greeted by a short, very pale, silver haired man with homely eyes that hide the story of someone saddened by misfortune. He smiles attentively; his teeth show signs of aging and traces of gold from heavy dental work. This man, although he may appear to be a frightful creature of a dark den, is a quiet, almost cheeky but indeed friendly man. If game enough to try a milkshake, one would only be charged $2.90. Should chocolate be your desire, then you’ll have to wait, for the owner informs that he is “just waiting on an order to come.” By the appearance of the empty discolored chocolate display boxes that wallpaper behind the counter, the customer will be waiting a long time.

Bruce Zhang heard that, “A long time ago, he and his brother opened the shop. His brother died. He promised his brother he would stay open.” Whereas Chris Brailey heard “a rumor [that] his wife died and he never recovered from it.” For a derelict building containing a business that attracts few customers, on a street that has seen better days, the Olympia Milk Bar is surrounded by gossip and misconceptions, all unconfirmed. Brailey has been watching the Milk Bar for the past five years; he jokingly admits, “I started to think maybe it was a drug den or a really classy undercover brothel, or even the missing part of the matrix, a portal to somewhere.”

The interior of the shop is spotless although it feels as if there should be a layer of dust over the entire space, for its age and original state would suggest otherwise. When he is not cleaning, Mr Fotiou is staring out the window. The owner of Timeless Vintage on Parramatta Road, observes, “Sometimes you’ll see him out the front sweeping.” Owner of the Marco Polo Café, located next to the vintage clothes store, comments, “It was very nice, clean place.”

Mr Fotiou’s milk bar is in its absolute original state with its stainless steel counter tops and vinyl floors that would have once shone brightly of green, yellow and red, but now only hint of those same colors. At “this stage he doesn’t care.” Confirms the café owner. Yvette, an Olympia Milk Bar Facebook fan believes, “his brother’s last dying wish was that he keep the shop open as it is, to not change anything and so that’s why it’s still running.” The café owner claims to have known “Dr Death” and his brother for over 45 years. He adds, “[his] brother was [a] nice guy, they[‘re] both nice guys. I never had any problems with them. Very quiet people.”

The building in which the Olympia Milk Bar stands erect was built in 1911, this same structural skeleton remain intact today. It was in 1937 that the bottom floor of the building was turned into a milk bar. A hair salon and theatre had been opened in previous years. All three businesses ran under the heading ‘Olympia’.

In 1964 two men, John and Nicholas Fotiou, took ownership of the building and the small businesses that came with. However today, there is only one man who stands in the milk bar; of the others only shadows remain. The Olympia Milk Bar has been attracting the attention of intrigued by passers for years. In mid 2007, a Facebook group was established and since then has gathered no fewer than 700 members. There is a bus stop directly outside the store that could be to blame for the small but obsessed group of followers. Whilst waiting for a bus, they may have noticed the oddness of the Milk Bar.

Although not many words are exchanged, one would leave the Olympia Milk Bar feeling sympathetic for old Mr Fotiou, for it appears he just wants to be left alone. He commented, “I wait for the pension, then I go!” A man who should clearly already be on the pension did not specify where he would go, but there is an implied message. He is just waiting…

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6 Responses to The Olympia Milk Bar: Dracula’s Den or Parramatta Road’s Treasure?

  1. Randal Hayes says:

    A fascinating very well written account of what appears to sadly be another one of what are our vanishing urban treasures.

  2. Miner says:

    Very interesting – a well written article. I pass by now and again and have wondered about its background.

  3. Bruce says:

    An interesting article concerning urban demographic change and degeneration. I remember well these types of buildings and buisinesses from the times when I lived in the Western suburbs. A good article Catherine!

  4. ben says:

    cool well written if i dare my self to walk in….

  5. nosedog says:

    Thanks for the considerate and informative writeup. A fascinating but ultimately sad story. I must visit soon…

  6. Mark Lucas says:

    love this place & have watched it change (little) over the decades, even through the tearing down of the Stanmore Twin next door. I was inspired to write a song by it & wanted to shoot a clip there but he wouldn’t come at it. Can’t say as I blame him really. Here’s a link to a live version from this year’s Glebe Street Fair:

    Somehow i feel that, culturally, we’ll be the poorer for it when he’s gone, remarkable how the myths build despite his reticence (or indeed as a result of…).

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