The Mugs Up parking lot off Orange Street was deserted Thursday evening. Straws and soiled napkins orphaned from carhop trays during the previous lunch rush lay neglected on the oil-stained blacktop.
The corrugated awnings enveloping the petite white structure in a welcoming embrace were devoid of the pervasive aroma of frying spuds and the cacophony of carhops, honking cars and chattering customers. Mugs Up was buttoned up for the day before the sun had set in memory of its founder and mainstay, Raymond Kewley, who died April 29. For Columbians he has been a personality synonymous with the simple pleasures of homemade root beer and the zest of zip burgers — a mixture of ground beef and spices served on a bun — for the past 52 years.
“He was devoted to making Mugs Up a good and welcoming place to eat,” said daughter-in-law Sharyl Kewley.
The entrepreneurial spirit that brought Kewley and his wife, Edna, to Columbia with Mugs Up, has been carried on through three generations of Kewleys. Inspired by their parents and late brother Ron, siblings Larry Kewley and Donna Stone plan to keep the drive-in open for a fourth generation yet to come.
“We’ve always been a close family, and the family that works together stays together,” said Donna.
Kewley fostered a familial feel at Mugs Up by hiring family and friends to keep the diner staffed with the eight people needed to manage the lunch rush hour.
“He was always interested in our lives,” said Mickey Havener, who worked at Mugs Up as a teenager and then watched all five of her children work there as well.
Kewley and his family watched Columbia grow as they served generations of customers their signature zip burgers, homemade chili and family recipe root beer. When Mugs Up first opened in 1955 it was one of the few establishments on Highway 40, the coast-to-coast corridor traversing the northern edge of town.
The look of Mugs Up has changed through the years. It began as a roadside root beer stand and evolved into a drive-in. The original neon sign was removed during renovations on the roof.
In contrast to the maturing facade of Mugs Up, the menu hasn’t changed much over the years. “We’ve added a few things like fries, but customers are constantly telling us, ‘Don’t change,’” said Larry, who runs the drive-in while his son Brandon manages day-to-day operations.
Larry and Donna have worked on and off at Mugs Up since they were in middle school. “I remember getting paid 35 cents an hour, but back then a root beer was five cents and you could get five chili dogs for a dollar,” said Donna.
Throughout a lifetime of zip burgers and root beer Raymond Kewley had been the fixture at Mugs Up that united his family and kept customers coming back for generations. “The funny thing is that he would have loved all this attention that Mugs Up is getting now that he has passed. He would have been just delighted,” Larry said.
Now his children and grandchildren are working to keep those customers returning for generations to come and attracting newcomers with the same familiar fare that has sustained Mugs Up for the past 52 years.