Although the metro area once was blessed with nine Mugs-Up locations, the one at 700 East 23rd Street, with its distinctive orange-and-white building, is the last in Kansas City. The chain was started by a Raytown restaurateur named Jim Heavey in the early 1950s, and by the 1960s, there were franchise operations in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Michigan -- and in Huntsville, Alabama, where Dwight used to eat twice a week before joining the Air Force in 1965.
So what happened? The drive-in phenomenon went the way of 3-D movies, hula hoops and The Honeymooners. Missouri may have the last two Mugs-Ups left on the planet, the Independence location and an even older franchise in Columbia, which has been operated by members of that city's Kewley family for 50 years. Mugs-Up fans travel from all over the country, pilgrims to a drive-in that's barely changed since serving its first Zip Burger in 1957.
The Independence venue hasn't changed since then, either. Current owner Bill Kendall bought the place 26 years ago and has tinkered only mildly with the original menu, removing popcorn -- "Yes, for some reason, that was on the menu once," he says -- and adding a deep-fried burrito, a fried chicken patty and barbecue sandwiches. The root beer is still homemade. Carhops deliver it in frosty glass mugs.
Kendall keeps his drive-in open six days a week (he closes on Sundays) all year long, even during the coldest days of winter, when, he admits, "business can be pretty slow."
As the days get balmier, I begin lusting after those loose-meat sandwiches, always served on doughy buns with pickles, chopped onion and mustard. I'm particularly fond of the Whiz Burger (a Zip Burger with American cheese), though my friends swear that the Chili Cheese Dog is the best thing on the menu.
What about Dwight's request for the Zip Burger recipe?
"I'll tell you what I tell everyone," Kendall says. "It's our secret." But there may still be hope. "We get so many requests from people out of state, I'm working on a plan to freeze and ship them."