A quirky figure in Buffalo’s entertainment industry shares his story
Milkie ran the Buffalo chapter of early fundraising efforts for Danny Thomas’s St. Jude Research Children’s Hosptal. Thomas and Milkie (light jacket) are shown at right, above.
Vintage images courtesy of Mike Milkie; image of Milkie by Alana Fajemisin
Meet Mike Milkie
The eighty-five-year-old proprietor of Milkie’s bar and restaurant at Elmwood and Utica has been in the Buffalo restaurant industry for six decades as owner and manager of more than a dozen different restaurant businesses across the city and suburbs.
His first establishment, procured in 1959, was the Falling Star, located in Cheektowaga’s Airport Plaza. It was here that Milkie met his wife; they had three children together: Mike, Mark, and Melissa.
In 1962 came the Milkie Way Restaurant at 5479 Main Street in Williamsville. In 1965, Milkie opened both the Miner’s Ten and Sutter’s Saloon in the University Plaza.
1967 saw the opening of Milkie’s Blu Galaxie restaurant, also in the University Plaza. A year after that, Milkie took on two more spaces—the Forvm and the Villa Romano—both in downtown’s Main Place Mall. A costume-themed bar, Gulliver’s Travels, was also a 1960s production. The Little Dipper opened in the Seneca Mall in 1969. Club Armando, the “bunny bar” (think Playboy without the brand name), came briefly on the scene in 1970. In 1987, Milkie opened the Old Docket, on Court Street.
In 1990, Sutter’s Saloon became Bobby McGee’s; two more McGee’s followed, one in the Thruway Mall in Cheektowaga and the other in the Maple Ridge Plaza in Amherst.
The 1990s were tough on Milkie’s business, and, slowly, most of his properties were decommissioned. But after a brief retirement in the early 2000s, Mike Milkie found he could not rest quietly. When the Elmwood Lounge went on the market in 2011, he negotiated his way into the space, holding court there until present day.
In the midst of his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, Mike Milkie also ran a theater, a provisions company, and a local fundraising division for St. Jude’s Hospital. What follows are excerpts from Do It the Milkie Way, a photo-heavy biography of one of Buffalo’s most prolific (and persistent) bar owners/restaurateurs.
Milkie’s second restaurant, in Williamsville
When Milkie was 21 in 1957, he went to M&T Bank and borrowed $50,000 with the help of four cosigners. By 2018 standards, that amount would be equivalent to $434,021.
“They believed in me. I was lucky,” he says. “It took off like gangbusters, that restaurant in the Airport Plaza.” That restaurant, opened about a year after Milkie procured his first loan, was the Falling Star, 4212 Union Rd. It remained under Milkie’s purview until 1971.
After working restaurant jobs his entire young life, it seemed only natural to stay the course. Thus began Milkie’s now six-decade career.
Over the course of thirty of those years, Milkie ran ten different restaurants at the same time. They were discordant in the way that the country was discordant: peace and love and war and disco. Greek and fine dining and Italian and costumed. The future was uncertain and not promised to anyone.
“My father died when I was really young. I had to work since I was nine years old. I was delivering papers, then I got a job in a restaurant. I liked the restaurant business and I just stayed in it.”
In 1944, Milkie began working at his father’s restaurant, Dad’s Texas Red Hots, located at 169 East Ferry Street, until his father’s death four years later. The next eight years were spent as a short order cook, and then in a management position with Colonial House Restaurants, while concurrently serving with the New York Air National Guard as a staff sergeant, headquartered in the kitchens. It was there he learned his real skills, serving cafeteria-style meals to 500 men daily.
At twenty-one, Milkie took a huge leap of faith and acquired a bank loan to start his own establishment, beginning a decades-long run of start-ups and ventures that finally ran out of steam in the nineties.
“I never went bankrupt. It was an image thing. If I would’ve gone bankrupt it would have been like Russ Salvatore going bankrupt—it would be all over the paper. I couldn’t face that.
“I sold the restaurants off, made peace with the bank, made peace with everybody. I kept the restaurant at the University Plaza all those years, then I came from there to here.”
Here, where we sat now, was the Elmwood Lounge at the corner of Elmwood and Utica, a place that housed a music icon for more than twenty years, that has facilitated the growth of a city’s comedy community, and that has acted as a stage to myriad performance works, ranging from burlesque dance to hip hop to comedy improv to poetry to the avant-garde. It could be argued that this latest star in the Milkie solar system could rival all of the previous stars in the light it emanates, but time is a funny thing; it tends to expand in ways unknown to the present.
In 1965, Milkie opened the Miner’s Ten and Sutter’s saloon in University Plaza.
In his current space here at Utica and Elmwood, Milkie takes his place at the end of the bar every day, or on the patio, where he once held court with Lance Diamond. He sits in his chair in this space, remembering the other spaces. “Everybody knew me. It was kind of fun, those days. My age group, they come in [to Milkie’s]: ‘Oh yeah you’re Mike Milkie!’ They know all about the rep. I had one lady come in once, and she was walking with a cane, and she says, ‘I used to work for you at the Falling Star!’ Sixty years ago.”
Milkie estimates that, over the course of the last six decades, his employee work force numbered approximately 4,000 people.
The space that Milkie’s current bar on Elmwood takes in the city’s cultural zeitgeist is a special one, but goes unnoticed to those outside of its bubble. For the last seven years—as of the time of this writing—Milkie’s has been utilized by an amalgamation of young artists to produce live events ranging from plays to poetry to punk rock to hip hop to stand-up and sketch comedy to the plain old weird.
Mike Milkie has an almost unspoken laissez faire policy for his space, as long as the beers get cracked at a good clip. This has allowed young artists, usually relegated to house basements, to play for their first general audiences. Those DIY spaces are necessary components to the culture scene in their own right, of course, but, at Milkie’s, artists could stretch their artistic limbs in a public space where anything goes.
Milkie’s is not without its share of troubles, but those who have worked there regularly as staff, producers, and artists have, in general, good experiences to share. Of course, the man has some mad haters in town, and has dealt with the kinds of serious issues that come from a lightly managed public space that serves alcohol in a city where it’s commonplace to imbibe until 4 a.m. on a regular basis. All in all, though, being in the industry for sixty years with only a handful of incidents is no small feat. People tend to remember what went wrong more than they can even recognize what went right, let alone remark on it. Pat Kewley [of Sugar City] is one of the latter:
“Like good clubs, important clubs, it’s got that thing that brings all different scenes together. It makes sense for me to go there and see fifty bespectacled white comedy guys, and it makes sense for me to go there and see a ton of rappers, or like, five noise guys who look like they’ve jumped off a box car. It’s got that kind of cross-cultural appeal.
“He clearly wants to be running a bar full of people. I don’t know if he needs the money or if he needs to work, I don’t know if he could be doing anything else if he had to, but, whether or not he needs to run Milkie’s, he clearly loves running a friendly place full of people having fun. I wonder if he realizes where he fits in the cultural ecosystem of Buffalo, you know?”
In a time of generational upheaval, of shifting social mores, of a blighted urban center attempting to reestablish its place of being in the American landscape, it’s of worth to note a past that endures within a modern-day framework, to honor a generation that laid the groundwork for a future that’s adding its own stories to the structure.
Mike Milkie has operated spaces all over Buffalo, New York, and its suburbs for the last sixty years, much of that time as a shadow behind a curtain. There have been no billboards, no advertisements wrapping the walls of the airport, no spots on local cable—except for short stories on his midwinter bikini parties.
He has, nevertheless, managed to eke his way into the fabric of what makes this city—its art and its nightlife—tick. And while it hasn’t been perfect, or easy, or flush with riches, it’s a story that holds within it a cavalcade of other stories, and one that emanates to all points of light in Buffalo’s own tiny Milkie Way.