Broadway Market milk shake war lasted 5 years

January 13, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

One of East Baltimore's greatest battles was fought with ice, chocolate syrup and milk.

Two feuding Broadway Market stall-keepers waged The Great Milk Shake War of 1928-1933. Ethnic rivalries and personality differences fueled the dispute. The story makes us chuckle today, but the combatants were anything but cordial during the battle.

The tale is related by Konstantine "Gus" Prevas, a Light Street attorney. John Prevas, his father, had sailed from Trapezondi in the Greek state of Laconia to begin a new career in Baltimore. The elder Prevas opened a candy and confectionery stall in the Broadway Market in 1898.

In time, he rented a stall facing Fleet Street on the northern end of the old, city-owned market building. By the time World War I broke out, he had established a prosperous soda fountain specializing in a distinct type of milk shake made with crushed ice, a thin homemade chocolate syrup and a dose of milk.

It was shaken by hand with the help of a cast-iron agitator machine. The beverage sold very well and was popular with the thousands of Polish families who shopped in the Broadway Market.

Alongside the Prevas soda fountain were two other merchants, a German vendor who sold peanuts and an Italian named Volpe who sold fruit. The three vendors, who had very visible stalls that spilled onto Fleet Street, were not friendly competitors.

"My father was a needler. The German did not like my father's constant ribbing. The rigid Germanic personality clashed with the free and open Mediterranean personality. It was a clash that was costly to the Prevas family," Gus Prevas said.

In 1928, the German peanut dealer decided to get out of the business and sell his stall, which was in a prime location. Prevas wanted the space to expand his soda fountain. The German got his revenge by selling to the Italian fruit vendor with the stipulation he go into direct competition with Prevas by establishing a pair of soda fountains.

"I can hear my father now, 'No Italian is going to drive me out of the Broadway Market. I made all my money from the Polish people and I'd rather give it back to them and be done with it,'" Prevas recalled.

Thus the milk shake battle began. In 1928, the price was 15 cents. It fell to 10 cents, then eight cents or two for 15 cents. The tab was slashed to a nickel, reduced again to three cents, then two milk shakes for five cents. In 1933, the milk shake battle bottomed out at two cents for a Prevas shake.

"We were selling them for far less than the cost of the labor, ingredients and rent. All our property had mortgages just to keep up fighting the war," Prevas recalled.

Volpe countered all the price reductions for five years.

"Each year, one of his relatives would lend him money so he could stay in business until finally my father negotiated with Volpe's milk supplier and made a deal. If the milkman would put Volpe in bankruptcy, my father would buy him out. The bankruptcy sale took place during the national Bank Holiday of March 1933. My father paid $8,000 for the business with U.S. government bonds he had borrowed from the Athens Bakery owners," Prevas said.

Though saddled with debt, John Prevas now owned exclusive rights to the Fleet Street side of the Broadway Market.

He used the former fruit stall portion of frontage for storage. The original soda fountain remained and from the former peanut stall, he sold hot dogs, hamburgers, crab and cod fish cakes. The price of a milk shake also went up to five cents.

A large Cloverland Farms dairy ad also went up over the Prevas stall. The sign became an East Baltimore landmark. The dairy also paid Prevas a handsome premium to keep its name in lights.

The demand for milk shakes was so great that the Prevas family kept 40 of the hand-powered milk shake agitators on hand. "I think we needed eight machines, but we kept the extras for parts. They were getting old," Gus said.

Gus started work there in 1936 when he was 12 years old. The stall opened at 5 a.m. and sometimes closed at 3 a.m. It was a great business location. One whole section of the soda fountain was for express orders for chocolate milk shakes. Some 15 people worked at the stall during peak periods.

"We really worked and delivered food fast. In the summer, we sold a lot of snow balls too. It was nothing to get a single order of 150 snow balls for the employees of Hecht's Reliable Store on Broadway. I'd see the woman coming and know I had to work fast. Now that's what I call fast food," Gus said.

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