Watertown dairy bar serving ice cream since 1932

Gloria Hafemeister

WATERTOWN – Steeped in tradition and rich with taste, Mullen’s Dairy Bar and Eatery in downtown Watertown has been serving up some of the smoothest ice cream in Wisconsin since 1932. 

After being closed for several months for renovation, new operators of the business, Josh, Adam and Matt Keepman are carrying on the tradition of providing real dairy treats in a nostalgic setting. 

The new owners have roots in the Watertown community. Their grandfather Erv Keepman Jr. grew up in Watertown where he had a paper route and regularly stopped at Mullen’s Dairy Bar for a thick chocolate malt with a raw egg on top.

As the new owners of the business, the Keepman’s spent the last months restoring Mullen’s to its former glory. 

Adam Keepman is the new owner, with his two brothers, of Mullen’s Dairy and Eatery in Watertown. An experienced chef he has introduced several new cheese entrée’s and continues to make Mullen’s ice cream using the two Emery-Thompson ice cream making machines that have served former owners of the business and are capable of making ten gallons of ice cream every 10 minutes.

Matt and Josh bring marketing experience to the business. Matt owns a frozen food company that he recently moved to Wisconsin from its previous home base in Texas. Josh brings with him years of experience in marketing and sales.

As a chef, Adam is bringing his culinary skills to the Mullen’s kitchen and has already created several new, popular treats including a special burger tower that features cheese curds from Watertown’s Kraemer Cheese. He also makes a popular quiche of his own creation featuring three varieties and plenty of Wisconsin cheese.

He gets help making ice cream right now from former owner Ron Luepke, using the Emery-Thompson ice cream making machine and following the original Mullen ice cream recipe that has been passed on to the new owners.

“My goal is to do for ice cream what New Glarus has done for beer. This is Wisconsin’s oldest established dairy bar featuring its own homemade ice cream. I want to build on that.”

Adam reveals the large tattoo featuring a cow’s head and the outline of Wisconsin on his arm.

He says, “I guess I was destined to get involved in a dairy business. I was living in Chicago when I had this tattoo done. I had no idea I’d be making ice cream and cheese dishes in the future.”

Immediate hit

Since the dairy bar reopened May 1, it has been packed with customers who are happy that the place that holds so many memories is continuing.

There has been a steady stream of customers on the six days a week that they are open.  

A family friend, Dan VanKorn, designed and carved a unique wood sign featuring four layers of pressed wood. The Keepman family, new operators of the popular dairy bar, have adopted it as their new logo.

On Mother’s Day, Bill Mullen, the last member of the Mullen family to own the business, brought his family to eat. On weekdays the business is booming right after school gets out as students stop by for a snack just as they did many decades ago.

Even their employees are excited about the Mullen’s history and take pride in what they are doing.

One waitress, Rebecca, is a fourth-generation dairy bar worker and others mentioned their memories of the place when they applied for employment.

Adam says, “Mullens fans are like Packer fans. They are truly passionate about their ice cream.”

When the Keepmans set out to restore the dairy bar and also bring it up to date as far as providing ADA approved restroom facilities they found a great deal of support from people in the community who had many happy memories of time spent at the dairy bar.

“So many people wanted to be involved and they made it a labor of love,” Adam says.

The look and feel of the dairy bar is the same as it has been since it opened in 1932.

People in the community contributed Mullen’s memorabilia and they dug out some old items from the attic of the business.

They even found, among the business records from the former owners, a letter from Ray Kroc dated May, 1945. In the letter, Kroc is soliciting business and commented that with the close of World War II his company was back in the business of marketing malt machines.

Several old advertising boards hanging in the shop feature the signatures of former employees, signed when former employees gathered for a reunion a few years ago.

It is a place where grandparents take their grandchildren, young people take their dates, and friends meet to relax, visit and enjoy fresh food made with local ingredients. Walking into Mullen’s is akin to taking a trip back in time when Buddy Holly was rockin the juke box and ’55 Chevy convertibles were rolling down Watertown’s Main Street.

Dairy farm origins

Standing as an icon in the Watertown community, Mullen’s isn’t hard to miss.  

The store’s west outside wall sports a mural depicting the area’s flourishing dairy farm industry. The mural features images of former Wisconsin governor W.D. Hoard, a barn scene, a Kraemer Dairy logo and Mullen’s delivery truck along with Mullen’s last delivery driver, a man known to many as “Pinky.”

The mural on the outside of Mullen’s Dairy Bar downtown Watertown tells the story of the family dairy business that began in 1843 when the Mullen family came to Wisconsin. In 1911 the family began bottling milk and making dairy products that they delivered throughout the city until 1980.  The mural features the dairy’s last delivery man, Howard “Pinky” Herold. One of the artists, Sherri Ertl, still works at the popular dairy bar.

The Mullen family settled on a farm near Watertown in 1843. The family bottled its milk and delivered it in the city until 1980 when they terminated their home delivery route. Over the years fourth and fifth generations of Mullen’s owned the bottling, milk delivery and ice cream business.

The family opened the dairy bar in 1932 as an additional market for their products.

When the store opened the ice cream was made from the top of their own milk. Now they purchase a dairy product from Galloway at Appleton and they use a malt mix with fresh whole milk from Sassy Cow creamery at Sun Prairie for their popular malts.

The Keepmans appreciate the help and encouragement they have gotten from the Luepkes who are officially retired from the business they bought from the Mullen family in 1997.

When the Luepkes purchased the business from the Mullen family they promised to preserve the look and feel of the popular dairy bar.

The Keepmans have vowed to continue that tradition.