For Mugs Up manager Brandon Kewley, every part of his business holds a piece of his childhood. So when the ice-cream freezer at the original building on Business Loop 70 broke down after more than 50 years of use, Kewley had to leave the premises as it was torn out.
“I was like, ‘They’re taking a chainsaw to my childhood!’” he says. “It was distressing for me.”
Kewley manages Columbia’s only locally owned drive-in, where he has worked since age 12. His grandfather Ray Kewley bought Mugs Up on July 2, 1955, when it was part of a chain of 60 restaurants. Now, it’s one of only two original locations still standing.
If Kewley has learned anything over the past 30 years in the business, it’s how to run the joint the right way. “He’s not just one to demand people do things,” assistant manager Jessica Pollock says. “He puts in the work himself and expects everyone to follow him. He’s a good leader.”
Kewley shares what’s kept Mugs Up going all these years.
As a kid, did you know you wanted to keep working at the restaurant later in life?
I did. I grew up in this place, so it’s like home to me. My parents actually met here. They went to Hickman. She was a carhop, and he worked here. They were friends through high school and ended up getting married in 1974. I’ve worked other jobs in the winter when we’re closed, but I couldn’t imagine not coming here.
What’s your bestseller?
Well, it’s a toss-up. The chili cheese dog is really popular, but then the cheese dip is, too. I like the Zip. But I do like the chili on Doritos. When I was a kid, the hot dogs were the thing that I ate almost every day. I just can’t do it anymore; I ate too many of them.
What makes Mugs Up unique to the Columbia community?
There’s a kind of timelessness here. It is like a time warp in itself almost because I’ve been here all these years. I’ve had so much fun with so many of these people for so long. It’s hard work, and it’s demanding, and it’s consuming, but there’s a comfort in knowing that a familiar face will be there every day.
The restaurant has been around for decades. Has the menu changed at all?
The food never really changes. The recipes are the same ones handed down by the grandparents. We’ve added a couple items, but that’s about it.
What’s the secret to your success?
The customers. They really are very loyal and devoted. That’s why we all feel kind of a connection with all of them. We get to know them over the years, and I still have customers who will send messages to me through the carhops. I think people like that nothing much changes here.