13 May 2024

Albion Park's beloved burger joint Joe’s Milkbar flips the script after facing closure

| Kellie O'Brien
Join the conversation
Joe Lee has reopened the doors to Joe's Milkbar in Albion Park.

Joe Lee has reopened the doors to Joe’s Milkbar in Albion Park. Photo: Kellie O’Brien.

Beloved Albion Park burger place Joe’s Milkbar announced the decision to close its doors in March, as the business faced financial heat.

However, spurred on by strong community support and falling back in love with why he started, owner Joe Lee took a leap of faith and decided to restart the grill a few weeks later with a few changes.

“I’ve decided to dig in my heels and stay open,” Joe said.

“A few changes will happen over the year to build the business back up.”

Joe said with the business haemorrhaging money and his lease ending, he was presented with the decision to close or re-sign the lease.

“At the time, I couldn’t see things getting better, so I decided to close,” he said.

“Then I had to make the tough call to let go of all the staff; I couldn’t afford to pay them for even another week.

“I’ll always be grateful for all the work they’ve put in.”

He said the plan was to operate the shop by himself for the few weeks in the lead up to closing.

“During the first few days of working alone, I found myself falling back in love with serving customers face to face, cooking them food, and seeing them leave with smiles on their faces,” he said.

“I kept finding more and more things I could fix, and people kept coming up and offering support and encouragement.

“So, hope for the shop’s success came back, and I decided I was going to start from scratch, go all in, and give it one more shot.”

READ ALSO From bolognese to bunny chow: How the Illawarra has expanded this Happy Little Vegemite’s culinary world

Joe first bought the shop in 2016, when it was known as the chicken shop, Chicken Wizard.

“I remember there was still a Civic Video next door back then,” he said.

“We would make everything from scratch and support local ingredients wherever possible.

“As we’ve grown, it’s been harder and harder to make absolutely everything in-house while keeping the prices affordable.

“At the end of the day, I would much rather provide a really, really good burger that a lot of people can afford, than make the best burger in the world that only a handful of people will ever get to try.

“Having said that, I wouldn’t want to compromise on anything that would make our food less than great.”

Supporting local has been particularly important to Joe.

“I once heard the definition of greed is taking from the community without giving something back, so I want to support it wherever I can,” he said.

“I’m a local business after all, so I know as well as anyone how much of a difference it can make.”

It’s led to many customers calling his burgers “the best burgers in NSW”, which he believes stems from “the sum of their parts”.

“The beef comes from the awesome butcher three doors down, so I give them a lot of the credit,” he said.

“I just try things until it tastes like I want it to taste. Sometimes it fails, sometimes it’s good. Failing is all part of the process.”

While his popular menu of fried chicken and smashed beef patty burgers remains, he has created a nicer atmosphere to sit and have a meal and implemented more systems behind the scenes to improve the business.

READ ALSO Five minutes with Hedydd Jamieson, 2 Bulls Eatery

“Every person that chooses to spend money at Joe’s Milkbar should leave feeling happy about that decision,” he said.

“So I use that as a criteria for what to keep and what not to keep.

“Unfortunately that means getting rid of some things, like the cafe.

“For now I want to focus on making the food as good as possible, and make sure customers aren’t waiting too long.”

He said community feedback on what they would and wouldn’t like to see had been invaluable, describing the response he was receiving as “absolutely amazing”.

“I couldn’t ask for a better town to have a burger shop in,” he said.

“From the bottom of my heart, thank you. I wouldn’t still be here without the outpouring of support over the last couple of months.”

Other support had come from one of his greatest food influences, his mother, who has been helping him build the shop back up, along with his sister.

He said his battle in business wasn’t unique, acknowledging it was tough running a business in any industry.

“It’s really hard sometimes; so hard it might want to make you quit, like I almost did,” he said.

“Sometimes you just need a reminder that the good outweighs the bad, because it does.”

And his plans from here?

“Keeping making burgers, until the day I make my last burger.”

Joe’s Milkbar is located at Shop 11 in the Albion Park Shopping Village and can be found on Facebook.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

Daily Digest

Want the best Illawarra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Illawarra stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.