By Roberto Chuter | Artwork by Robert Scholten
I first visited Acland Street in the mid-1990s. I remembered one summer lining up for fried fish in crispy batter, served with chips at the packed out fish ’n’ chip shop. Along with a cold beer, it was a small treat to sit down at the beach and take in the sea air at sunset. Acland Street was the holiday haven for summer.
However, since then Acland Street has vastly changed, some say not for the better. It is barely recognisable. It use to be a colourful refuge for artists, drag queens, sex workers, Jewish immigrants, and all kinds of weird and wonderful characters. It’s now tourist cafes, the homeless, an updated, pedestrian-friendly streetscape, a public plaza, a level-access Route 96 tram terminus, and a sad collection of empty shops and venues. With the gradual disappearances of places like Scheherezade, Big Mouth, Berger’s Delicatessen, Cosmos Books, Candy Corner, Veludo, Leroy’s Expresso and many others, thankfully, there are still a few tenacious and unique shops and venues that have survived. The ANZ bank has since vanished, but there is an array of mouth-watering cake shops to choose from. But there is one, in particular, that is iconic. And I don’t use the word ‘iconic’ lightly.
I decided to partake in my guilty pleasure of the best lemon tart and hot chocolate in this city. Tradition is uppermost at the Monarch Cakes. It’s the last bastion of old St. Kilda. So, bathed in authentic old-style ambience and in between mouthfuls of tart and sips of hot chocolate I spoke to lovely Nikki Markham Laski about the Monarch.
Tell us about your parents and how they came to own the Monarch Cakes?
My dad (Gideon Markham) was born in Warsaw, Poland, and lost most of his family and home during the Holocaust. He was a displaced person and after the war was sent with his mother who had survived, to Israel. Here he completed school and served in the army. He discovered he had a relative in Australia who was a cousin of his deceased father. He applied to study Architecture here in Melbourne and received a scholarship. His cousin helped him here to settle and they lived in Balaclava. As a student at Melbourne University, he met my mother, Shirley, at a party. She was born in Melbourne to Polish parents who had immigrated here before the war.
They fell in love and were married in 1966 and started a life together. They discovered Acland Street which had all the familiar foods that were loved by the local Jewish community. They would eat at ‘Scheherazade’ and buy cakes from ‘Monarch Cakes’. Both of these places were authentic and reminded post-war Jews of the foods from their past. Over the years, my dad became friendly with the owners. One day they mentioned that they were considering retiring and selling the business. Their son was an accountant and not interested in the business but they were very keen to pass the business to another Jewish family in order to keep the traditions alive. That was very important to them. At the time, my dad was thinking of retiring from decades of designing and building and thought this was a great opportunity to do something fun with all of his family. My mum was a travel agent, my brother Daniel had just finished his law/economics degree and I was pretty much-doing nothing… just traveling around the world. I did not have a profession and I had no idea of what I wanted to do with my life. My dad told me that if this was something I thought I would enjoy, then he would buy the business. I had only ever worked in hospitality so it was perfect for me. In 1996 we bought the business and this is where the next chapter of ‘Monarch Cakes’ began.
Why did the name change from Monaco to Monarch?
When the cake shop first opened in 1931 in Lygon Street by Joseph and Perlia Levine, it was called Monaco. It traded there in Carlton for three years. When the Jews first came to Melbourne, many lived in Carlton and there were many businesses that catered to their needs. The area was relatively cheap and affordable for migrants. Over the years, the community started to shift over to the bayside suburbs as they always loved the idea of being by the sea. The owners decided to relocate to Acland Street in 1934 and set up shop and have been in this exact store since then. They renamed the business to ‘Monarch Cakes’, to fit in better with the area that was mostly Anglo Saxon at the time.
How did you become involved with the business and what is your background? Did you intend to follow in the family business or did you have other plans originally?
My parents bought the business with my future in mind. At the time we thought my brother would become a lawyer and I really had no idea of what I wanted to do. I had a Bachelor of Arts Degree, but no passion for anything specific. I had always worked in restaurants, bars, nightclubs and it was suited to my personality. I loved to interact with people. I loved to chat with customers and loved to watch them enjoy our cakes.
Why do you do the work that you do? Do you share the workload with other family members?
Within a family business, there needs to be a division of labour. We all have our talents and abilities. My brother has an economics/law degree, so he was involved in those decisions, and also when we introduced coffee he took the role of coffee maker and trained our staff. My dad did the business side of things, wages, paying bills, etc. My mum, coming from years of being a travel agent, had the customer service background and the patience that came along with that. I had numerous roles that were developed over time. At first, it was mainly serving customers but I slowly added hiring and training of staff, product development, quality control, and rostering. They were all very time-consuming jobs. But we all shared the workload in our own way. In a family business, everyone plays their part. Sometimes it might feel that you do more or less, but each person is valuable and together we work pretty well. I find that the work I do is suited to my personality. I think that I have a pretty good skill set for picking staff and this is a very important role.
What are the most well-known aspects of the business?
‘Monarch Cakes’ has been recognised as one of Melbourne’s most important food businesses. It is widely known all over the world and you can find us in all the travel guides and blogs. We have been listed in both the Victorian and Australian top twenty must-visit destinations. We have been recommended by Qantas in their inbound promotional videos and magazines. We have been written about and filmed by dozens of local and international programs and magazines. We have featured in music videos and TV shows. Several years ago the laneway next to our shop was dedicated to us by being renamed: “Monarch Lane”. It was the first time in Victoria that a street has been named after a business. Port Phillip Council needed to apply to the Victorian Government for an exemption in order to get this naming. Monarch Lane was given to us for our 80th birthday in recognition of us not just being a business but a “local meeting place” and “community hub”. It was a very special day and there was an official opening and unveiling of the street sign. Our quality and our authentic cakes are well known, but also for our commitment to keeping a tradition alive. We are known for our hospitality, for our ambiance, and our chocolate Kooglhoupf!
Do you have a favourite cake or pastry that has been handed down?
Over the years, many cakes have been deleted and many have been added. As times have changed we have had to adapt. Many of the old favourites appealed to a generation that has passed and we have found that tastes have changed. As a result, several new lines were added to keep us in business. But there are many that have stood the test of time and have been favourites across several generations. The Polish Baked Cheesecake is based on a 100-year-old recipe that has not changed since its days back in Poland. We even have a special quark to suit the old recipe from Poland. The other of our favourites is Monarch’s Famous Plum Cake. It is a delicate butter sponge with dark plums. It is a very simple cake but iconic and special. It relies on the best quality butter and tart plums that are locally grown in Australia. Our plums come from SPC and we are the biggest consumer of these plums in Australia. We were even given a commemorative can with our name on it to thank us for supporting their local growers. Lastly and most importantly our Chocolate Kooglhoupf… spelled a dozen different ways over 80+ years. This cake is our signature and most internationally renowned cake. People from all over the world come here for this. It is a yeast pastry cake with swirls of real chocolate through it. Known to many as Babka, this cake goes back to Eastern Europe where the Polish and Germans have made this for generations. Although the exact background is not known, it is also a cake that was made in Alsace. We have many customers who have said that ours is better than anything they can find in Europe!
What do you think have been some of the negatives in your work?
All businesses have a negative side. I think that the seven-day business can be very trying. Over the decades we were open from 8am-10pm seven days a week. The demand of being open every day is difficult personally. I have had two children and they literally were born here. Even when on holiday you are still at work in some way. Wherever you are, you are always a call away when there are problems and it is very hard to switch off. Over the pandemic, we reduced our opening hours to 8am-6pm and it was the best thing we have done since taking over the business. It has given me my evenings back. It will never go back to being open at night and although it took a while for customers to appreciate this, they are slowly accepting it. Working with family has its challenges, but generally, we do okay!
What’s been some of the positives in your work do you think?
There are many positives. The connections we have made over the decades have been wonderful. Both customers and staff have become part of the Monarch family’. This aspect has been lovely. We are still in touch with staff who worked here twenty years ago. It is always so lovely to get a visit from one of them
especially when they bring their family with them. Another thing that I love is to see the joy you bring people. There are many cake shops and many businesses that make great food…. but to hear people constantly tell us that we make the best cakes in the world, is always nice. I have been told by countless customers that there is nothing like us anywhere else and that we must never change. One customer said that we should be ‘heritage listed’ so that we are here for generations to come.
If you couldn’t do this anymore, what do you think you would have done Nikki?
I have no idea, to be honest. If we were to close or sell, I guess I would be pretty bored. Maybe I would consult for a hospitality business, but otherwise, I probably wouldn’t do much.
Tell us a funny story or joke that involves your work or life or the business.
My goodness, where do I start. This is a book on its own. Over the years, my staff has said that our business would make a great reality TV show or sitcom. There is never a dull moment. Everyday situations occur that are challenging or ridiculous. They are part of the reason why so many of my staff have gone on to have successful careers in their profession of choice because they have learned to deal with every possible scenario. It is great that both of my girls are working here too. Having grown up behind the counter they have become confident and capable beyond their years. I have served 100’s of celebrities over the years… actors, musicians, sportspeople, politicians… I have thousands of stories. One story that I love that always makes me laugh is the time that I spotted Vince Colosimo at the counter waiting to be served…. I was at the back decorating cakes and I rushed out the front to serve him, almost knocking one of my staff over at the time. My heart was beating a hundred miles an hour. I could barely speak, I was so starstruck. I asked him what he would like. He asked for a box of biscuits. He chose what he wanted and I boxed them up and put them on the scales to weigh them. I remarked that I needed to weigh them first… and he turned to his friend and said: “Oh they get sold by weight, just like cocaine”. I smiled nervously but didn’t have anything witty to say back!
I left the Monarch after enjoying my guily pleasures, but coudn’t resist purchasing another lemon tart for the road.
Check out Monarch Cakes – 103 Acland Street, St. Kilda, 3182 | 03 9534 2972