"Mugs Up opened almost 61 years ago, and we've been with Landmark all along," said Kay Kewley.
We've had lots of loans through Landmark over the years, and we've worked with them personally, too. It's a family-type atmosphere, which is something we've always valued. They greet us by name when we walk in the door, and we know we can count on them to help us with whatever we need. Isn't it time you became a Landmark client?
Zip Burgers, Floats and 1950s Nostalgia
For Larry Kewley, it's hard to remember a summer as a boy that didn't involve classic cars, cold root beer and a good old-fashioned Zip burger. It was July 2, 1955, when Larry's father, Ray Kewley, a father of three, bought Mugs Up — the root beer drive-in on the north side of Columbia, Missouri, known just as much for the family that owns it as its "Zip" burgers and home-brewed root beer. From the very beginning, Mugs Up was all about the atmosphere. And for a wide-eyed kid getting his first glimpse of the working world, that atmosphere was about as good as it gets.
"There were wonderful cars that used to come out there when I was really little," Larry says, remembering his early years at Mugs Up with his dad. "It was during the '50s and '60s, and gosh, I was fascinated by the cars. Almost every kind of car came in there at one time or another."
Classic cars, soda and burgers: Mugs Up was pretty much a little boy's dream, and serving root beer to folks in a '59 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz or preparing burgers for a family in a '57 Chevy Bel Air didn't quite feel like work. Classic Corvettes, T-Birds — even Avantis and DeLoreans — made appearances at the drive-in.
"It was just such a fun place to be," Larry says. "It was always something special."
Most locals familiar with Mugs Up and its history would say that the something special was Ray Kewley. From the moment he opened, Ray operated his business like a family. He treated his employees well, he enjoyed visiting with the customers who dropped in for lunch, he knew how to make people feel appreciated — and he knew how to make them laugh.
"He just had a crazy sense of humor," Larry says. "You never knew what he was going to say. He had all kinds of sayings, all kinds of ways to make us laugh."
Larry's wife, Kay Kewley, agrees.
"Oh, he was a pill!" she laughs. "Everyone has a million stories with him. He used to stand behind me when we were in front of the business, and a customer would come in, and he'd say, 'Oh, look, it's Aunt Dottie.' And he'd be waving his hands like they were mine! He was so fun."
From the jokes to the sayings to the heartfelt way he ran his business, Ray always left an impression.
"Everybody loved him," Kay says. "And everybody called him Paw-Paw."
'They made me feel like family'
Kay Kewley remembers her first day on the job at Mugs Up, where she's worked for the past 51 years.
"I was almost 15 when I started there," she says. "Mugs Up was my first job. I was pretty shy, and the job was hard because you had to remember a lot. We stayed open until 11 p.m., so I did all of my homework there. But I loved it. The Kewleys made me feel like family."
It's a fitting choice of words for Kay, who would become a Kewley herself. She and Larry worked together as teenagers and were best friends all through high school.
"I just always enjoyed it," Larry says of his high school years with Kay at Mugs Up. "And we enjoyed it together."
They were married when Kay was 24, nine years after they started working together. And they've been working together ever since.
"You couldn't work together as much as we do if you didn't get along," Larry says. "We don't even think anything of it. That's just how it's always been."
Like a lot of family businesses, Ray and Edna's three kids learned the ropes at an early age. Larry's older brother, Ron, ran Mugs Up for 14 years even though Ray stayed on, and their sister, Donna, was involved for a number of years, too. And like Larry's parents did before them, Kay and Larry raised their two children in the family business.
"We used to do ads in the Adsheet, and she was always the face of the business, holding up a root beer mug," Larry says of their daughter, Katie Eberhard, who now lives in Virginia with her husband and 1-year-old son. Today, it's Larry and Kay's son, Brandon, who is in charge of the day-to-day operations — though Kay and Larry are never far away.
"Larry still helps Brandon open every morning, and I do all the bookkeeping and help him close sometimes," Kay says. "Larry and Brandon are really close. Larry had that with his dad and brother, and it's really special that he has that with Brandon. They both grew up here, grew up in this business. And they love it more than anybody."
Love might be an understatement for Brandon, who started working at Mugs Up in 1989 and took over as manager in 1999. To him, the business is family.
"I remember coming in as a little kid with my dad to close, getting my orange soda and hot dog and just watching people working," Brandon says. "It's always felt like home to me. It's always been a family business. And I couldn't imagine my life without it."
Within minutes of talking to Brandon, it's clear that Ray's legacy is alive and well. He cares deeply about his family, employees and customers. And the joy he feels when remembering his grandfather comes through in laughs strong enough to stop his speech. They had a very close relationship, especially in Ray's last years.
"I used to make him dinner at night, and we'd sit and talk," Brandon says. "He sure had a flair for comedy. I have fond memories of him goofing around and playing little tricks on my parents for fun."
Brandon laughs again, remembering the running gag Kay shared earlier, the one when Ray would stand behind her waving his hands.
"I try to keep things light and easy like he did," Brandon says. "He loved being here at the business and being around everybody, even after he retired. He cared about this place so much. I feel the same way."
'Make it a place that people really want to be'
After owning similar businesses in Texas and Michigan, Ray and Edna bought Mugs Up in Columbia with a small-business loan through Landmark Bank, then Exchange National.
"We go back over a half century with Landmark," Larry says. "My dad was friends with the bankers there, and we've just always liked the way they do business."
The Columbia location, though locally owned and operated from the beginning, was part of the Mugs Up chain, which, at the time, included at least 60 other restaurants under the larger umbrella. Today, the Columbia Mugs Up, with the third generation of Kewleys running the business, is the oldest remaining Mugs Up in the country.
"I hope it's that we've loved the place, and it's magically sustained us," Brandon says of why they've managed to stay open when all other Mugs Up restaurants have shuttered. "I know customer loyalty has sustained us. And I know my family has loved the business — my parents have, my grandparents did — so I think it's that and the loyal staff that have kept us alive against the odds."
As a seasonal business, Mugs Up opens in the spring every year — usually in March, Larry says, depending on the weather. They always close around Nov. 1. The summer months are especially busy.
"We have our noon hour, which used to last until 2, but sometimes it lasts much longer than that, maybe 3 or 4," Larry says. "Then it gets busy again for the dinner hour, and we're open until 9."
Brandon prepares the food every day at Mugs Up using his grandfather's recipes, everything from the home-brewed root beer he's been making since he was 12 to the Zip burgers and chili cheese dogs. Cooking, he says, has always been important to the Kewleys. And his grandfather had a knack for it.
"He really loved cooking," Brandon says. "It's something that has really lived in our family."
Even though the business closes for winter every year — and has since the beginning — employee retention is nothing short of incredible. At Mugs Up, it's not uncommon for carhops to stay with the business for 10, 20, even 30 years.
"What happens is this," Larry says matter-of-factly. "We really do become like family with the people that work with us. We've been doing that for so long, and we think it's really important that we take care of them in every way we can.
"In some businesses, people come and go," he continues. "We try to make it as much fun as it can be so it's a place that people really want to be."
One of the current carhops, Kelli Bias, started working for the Kewleys years ago when she was in high school and then left to raise her four children.
"Now she's back," Kay says, "and her three daughters work for us, too. They're wonderful workers."
"It's really nice to have people here that you like to work with that much," Larry adds.
Brandon agrees. They work hard, he says, but they have fun while doing it.
"We're busy people, and we have to get the job done, but we love to joke around, and we're all so easygoing with each other," Brandon says. "It's the atmosphere that I believe my grandfather would have wanted."
It's a close-knit environment, and that's exactly how the Kewleys like it.
"We try to keep it close," Kay says. "We have kids working for us now who are the grandkids of kids Larry and I worked with when we were younger. Everybody knows everybody — and we really like it that way."
"My staff, most of them have been there for so long, so they know what they're doing in their sleep," Brandon adds. "I'm very proud of the crew we have now, and I think my grandfather would be, too."
'Because they loved the Kewleys'
The year 1955 is important to the Mugs Up story for a number of reasons. Not only was it the year when Ray and Edna bought the business that's sustained their family for decades, but it also represents a bygone era that the Kewleys have managed to freeze in time. That '50s nostalgia, Kay says, is what makes their place so special.
"We're the same Mugs Up that we were in the '50s," she says. "We're doing the same thing, we have the same carhops, we're making the same food and hopefully doing the same really good service.
"We still have the same old building," she continues. "We're at a new location, and it's been updated, but it looks the same on the outside. And our girls are professional waitresses — they don't use a pad or paper to write on — they remember it all in their heads. I think people appreciate that. They appreciate the service, and they like coming to a place that they remember from when they were kids.
They like that it still feels like it always has."
Through 61 years of business, the Kewley family has prided itself on making Mugs Up a place where employees look forward to going to work. The service is important, as is the food, but it's the people who really make the business.
"I feel very blessed to work with the people that I work with every day," Brandon says. "They've all very lovely people, and Columbia has been really good to our business, too, especially the loyal customers."
"Everybody loves working there," Kay adds. "That's how it's been since the beginning. Larry's dad was really good to me when I started out, and I try to be good to everyone else — it's a way of honoring him. That's how Brandon runs the business, too."
And that's not all that's remained the same. Nearly 61 years later, the Kewleys are still banking with Landmark.
"They've always been fair to us," Kay says. "We've had lots of loans through Landmark over the years, and we've worked with them personally, too. It's a family-type atmosphere, which is something we've always valued."
At Mugs Up, that family atmosphere is just as strong today as it was in 1955.
"That's how Larry's dad started it, and that's how we've kept it," Kay says.
Ray stayed involved in the business well into his 80s. When he died in 2007, the entire community came out to celebrate his life.
"The radio that day had people telling stories about him every hour," Kay says. "Everyone had a story to tell — he made us all feel like family."
And today, for the Kewleys and Mugs Up, family is still what it's all about.
"Larry's dad loved this place, and he wanted everyone else to love it, too," Kay says of her father-in-law. "And everyone has loved this place. I think a lot of that is because they loved the Kewleys."
"The whole world is changing," Larry says. "But not us. And I think that's why people keep coming back."
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