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Friday, 26 April, 2002, 07:24 GMT 08:24 UK
Polish milk bars struggling on
Customers in a milk bar in Poland
Dumplings and cabbage: An alternative to hamburgers
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By Nicholas Walton in Warsaw

For years in Poland a meal out meant wandering down to the local milk bar - a state-run canteen serving good solid food - and as long as you didn't want meat or alcohol, at bargain prices.

Many thought the milk bar's days were numbered with the end of communism, but after more than a decade later, those that remain are carving out their own place in the country's competitive catering marketplace.

Lots of our customers are poor people... But then there are lots of others who simply like Polish cooking.

Milk bar manager

In the communist years of food shortages and endless queues the milk bars provided an affordable place for most people to eat out.

They served basic traditional Polish meals - such as pierogi dumplings and cabbage - and because of state subsidies they were able to keep costs down.

But Poland today is a very different place. The shops are packed with fresh food such as mangos and kiwifruit. There are restaurants of every type - in Warsaw it's possible to eat everything from sushi to Indian curry to Spanish seafood.

Fast food expansion

And then there are the chains of western fast food branches opening up all over the country.

Nowadays, just over 10 milk bars survive in Warsaw - a fraction of the number that served the capital during communism. But at most times of the day they are full, with queues waiting to place their orders.

Customers reading the menu in a Polish milk bar
The menu has grown over the last decade

The menus are posted to the wall near a cash desk. After ordering and paying, customers wait at another counter where the dishes are handed out, straight from the kitchen.

The range of food on offer has expanded over the last decade. There are now many meat options, such as pork cutlets and chicken, although alcohol still is not on the menu.

Cheap meals

The remaining milk bars are privately owned, but most of the basic foodstuffs, such as cooking oil and vegetables, are still subsidised by the state.

A pork cutlet, mashed potatoes, cabbage salad and tea cost me eight zlotys, which is less than $2.

The government also issues tokens as part of the state social security system, which recipients can exchange for meals at milk bars.

"All kinds of people come to milk bars", explains the manager of Bar Mleczny Prasowy in Warsaw, Nina Gruszczynska.

The ladies who work here deserve the gold medal for what they do


She has been working in Milk Bars for 30 years, and says that they are now attracting a broad cross-section of Polish society.

"Lots of our customers are poor people, or ill people who have a small income. But then there are lots of others who simply like Polish cooking. The dishes are typically Polish, and milk bars are a continuation of good Polish cuisine."

Big portions

The customers agree with her that the food is tastier and cheaper than at the McDonalds restaurant a couple of hundred metres away.

"It's cheap, so it's excellent for people like me," explains a student. "It's also much more healthy than eating fast food."

Two men tucking into bowls of soup on the next table are also enthusiastic.

"You can eat your fill for a lot less than in restaurants. It's like home cooking. But the disadvantage is that sometimes you meet strange people in milk bars," says one.

"This has been the best milk bar in Warsaw for the last 30 years," adds his companion.

"It's the cheapest, you get the biggest portions. And it's the cleanest. And the service is the best - as quick as lightning! The ladies who work here deserve the gold medal for what they do."

The remaining Polish milk bars are certainly popular, but their popularity depends in part on the subsidies that keep the prices very low.

If that support is ever withdrawn, it is questionable whether they would survive.

See also:

30 Jan 02 | Europe
Poland's farming woes
21 Mar 02 | Europe
Poles win land battle in Brussels
30 Nov 01 | Europe
EU fears divide Poland
24 Sep 01 | Business
Poland's economic challenge
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