Happy 60th, Mugs Up!

July 2, 1955, a burger and root beer stand opened in northwest Columbia, nearly out of town on Highway 40. Locals soon found Mugs Up Drive-In and developed a hankering for the restaurant’s savory loose-meat burgers and delicious root beer served in a frosty mug.

Sixty years later, Highway 40 is now Business Loop 70, and Mugs Up, just a parking lot away from its original location, sits amid the bustle of a city six times its 1955 size. But while the last six decades have transformed the city around the drive-in, Mugs Up has changed very little — to the delight of generations of Columbians.

“A lot of people who come here are grandparents who met here on the lot or remember it from high school days,” says Kay Kewley, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Larry. “Now their kids come and their grandkids come, and it just stays the same.”

The menu is classic drive-in fare. Favorites include the famous Mugs Up loose-meat zip burger; the chili cheese dogs; the chili cheese fries; and, of course, the made-fresh root beer, still served in a frosty mug.

“People bring lawn chairs or open up their station wagons or SUVs and let the kids sit back there,” Kay says. “We have wonderful carhops. They are so good to our customers and know lots of them by name.”

Once one of 60 Mugs Ups in the Midwest, Columbia’s Mugs Up is now one of just two; the other is in Independence, Mo. Mugs Up closes every winter, and that annual absence has helped keep people excited for the little drive-in.

“People are hungry for us,” Kay says. “When we open, we are so busy, we can’t hardly take it, and we stay busy until November. … Our people we buy food from are always amazed at how much food goes through this little building.”

The Kewley family has owned Mugs Up almost since the very beginning — but not quite. The first owners built the restaurant and were there just a couple of months before handing the business over to Raymond and Edna Kewley, Larry’s parents. Both of Larry’s siblings, Ron and Donna, have also run the business.

Kay joined the Mugs Up family as a carhop when she was 15.

“I loved it here,” she says. “I got to work with Larry’s dad and brother and sister, and I just loved the whole family.”

Before Larry and Kay were married, Larry’s mother taught Kay how to do the bookkeeping, and for the last 41 years, Larry and Kay have been running Mugs Up. They have no plans to retire.

“It brings us closer together because we get to see each other every day, which we love,” Kay says. “We miss our daughter a lot — she worked here when she was in high school but moved away to Washington, D.C. — but we get to see our son every day. Not too many people are lucky like that.”

Their son, Brandon, has served as the Mugs Up manager for about 15 years and will one day inherit the business.

“It’s going to stay in the family because our son loves it, and he’ll carry it on,” Kay says.

Mark Brewer is one of the many faithful “Mugsupians” who look forward to Mugs Up always being there. In a post on Inside Columbia Prime’s Facebook page, Brewer shared that his wife, “a local girl,” introduced him to Mugs Up in the ’70s. They had a daughter in the 1980s. “Once she was old enough to hold her own sandwich we started coming back,” he wrote. “We have fond memories of the three of us going and sitting out in the car, enjoying great food and great root beer. It’s a throwback to old memories and a great place to make new ones.”