One shop left as Aberystwyth National Milk Bar closes

By Carl Yapp
BBC Wales News

Image caption,
Aberystwyth's National Milk Bar closed last Saturday after more than 70 years

National Milk Bars were once a common sight in Wales, and even The Beatles dropped in for a coffee at a branch on their way to the top, but the restaurants could soon be a thing of the past.

Customers appear to be shunning their frothy coffees, cream cakes and milk shakes in favour of more sophisticated and trendy coffee shops.

In recent years, the chain of 17 milk bars has dwindled to just one in Wales, in Rhyl. Aberystwyth's closed last Saturday and in recent weeks Welshpool's also shut.

The National Milk Bars (NMB) were founded by Willie Griffiths and his wife Florence, and they ran them successfully from the Woodlands farm in Forden, near Welshpool, for a number of years.

The couple decided early on that their future lay in milk, although they did not have much experience of dairy farming.

Image caption,
Willie Griffiths founded the National Milk Bars with his wife, Florence

Farming was Mr Griffiths's first love, but he enjoyed the challenge of business. On a trip to London in the early 1930s, he noticed the new phenomenon of milk bars, which had started in the United States.

Milk was being sold across smart counters for a few pennies a glass, so Mr Griffiths decided to provide an outlet in Wales.

The first NMB branch opened in Colwyn Bay in 1933, followed by Llandudno later that same year. Within a decade there were 10 NMBs, and to help supply them, Mr and Mrs Griffiths bought a milk depot and cheese factory in Four Crosses, near Welshpool.

The brand branched out into England, and in 1936 a milk bar opened in Birmingham and a year later there was one in Manchester too. Others followed in Liverpool, Shrewsbury and Oswestry.

The Beatles are even said to have met at the Liverpool bar.

For the next few decades the business flourished, even after Mr Griffiths' death in 1962.

Between 1972 and 1982, turnover quadrupled from £500,000 to £2m and by 1987 it was £3m. Two years later Mrs Griffiths died, at 91, after 60 years as a company director.

Image caption,
A National Milk Bar from about 1935

But by 2000, NMB's fortunes started to fade. It closed its Newtown branch, and others were either sold or shut in the following years.

Managing director John Frost said the company was struggling against coffee shop and supermarket cafe competition.

He said: "We've lost the model, as it were, of National Milk Bar. It's become out of date really with the next generation, so if we were looking to continue we'd probably have to upgrade and become a more coffee-like operation.

"But that market is pretty flooded at the moment."

Mr Frost added that NWBs had been suffering from a "general decline in the economy and the high street".

He said: "There's a lot of competition. Tesco has moved into Newtown, Machynlleth and Welshpool and it tends to suck up trade in the high street."

Mr Frost added: "Our Liverpool branch is mentioned in a biography of the Beatles. They talked about going down to the milk bar in 1964. We're glad to have this claim to fame."