WATERTOWN — Whether sipping a soothing smoothie during a hot summer’s day or eating a free scoop of ice cream within the restaurant’s walls as below-zero weather ravaged the area, Watertown knows where and how to get the best ice cream in Wisconsin.
They long have enjoyed the dairy desserts that come from Mullen’s Dairy Bar, 212 W. Main St.
For Mullen’s Dairy Bar owners Adam, Josh and Matt Keepman, they hope soon the country will know.
“We want to give Wisconsin ice cream. We want to be thought of with the classic Wisconsin tradition of ice cream,” Josh said. “The idea is to capture the nostalgia and retro type feeling of our place. The sense of good feelings.”
The Keepmans, whose grandfather Erv Keepman Jr. grew up on Second Street in Watertown and regularly visited the Mullen’s establishment, view the dairy distributor as a “local secret.” When the opportunity came for their company, Kandyman Can LLC, to purchase the company and all of its assets from previous owners Ron and Gloria Luepke, the brother’s knew they wanted to take the business to the next level.
“We didn’t seek to be a restaurant owner. We saw a valuable historic brand that never hit the shelves,” Josh said. “We came in with the intention to seek growth and that launched a year ago.”
Hitting the shelves is exactly what Mullen’s did.
According to the Keepmans, the business has entered 40-50 stores between the Madison and Milwaukee area, including several Piggly Wiggly’s and Lake Mills Market, currently moving between 12 and 15 of its most popular flavors, of which they currently have 26. The business is not done, as the brother’s explained their intention to develop into larger areas and stores, including Woodman’s and Kroger (thus, Pick n’ Saves), all of which they have had discussions with.
“This year is about maximizing the area in Wisconsin between Madison and Milwaukee. Next, we would go into the Twin Cities (region in Minnesota) and Chicago,” Josh said. “That’s the advantage of our distribution. We’re in a great spot.”
Recently, the brother’s received a boost in their plans to become a regional company as the Trial and Appeal Board in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office sided with the Luepkes that maintain the ownership of the company’s name now officially, allowing the brothers full usage of the trademark for their future endeavors.
“There’s relief,” Adam said. “We had a vested interest in the decision going in the Luepke’s direction and so there’s relief and optimism that we’re on the right track. It’s great momentum for the off-season sort of like how the minus 20 degree days were last year (for us).”
The company gained more help towards its future goals in September, when it was one of 10 businesses selected to be a part of Food and Beverage Wisconsin’s fourth accelerator class, which helps Wisconsin-based food, beverage, ingredient or packaging companies grow their businesses. According to Josh, the group has helped provide the brothers with mentorship, giving them relevant advice to help them build toward the future.
Now, the business is trying to take the next step in expanding its products. The brothers are looking towards working with distributors, investors and a co-packer to help push their products into the new markets. With the positive momentum gained from the court decision, the brothers can “put the gas down.”
As far as Mullen’s future in Watertown, the brothers said the city still plays an integral part in their plans.
Mullen’s Dairy began in 1911 when Frank Mullen Sr. began a new dairy route from his dairy farm, according to the company’s website. As the business grew, Mullen and his sons, Frank Jr. and Weber, began bottling and distributing their milk from a building just west of its current location in 1932, becoming the only bottler and distributor in the Watertown area. Seven years later, Mullen’s other son, Gerry, joined the family business and operations moved to its present site and by 1940, the family added ice cream production to its store while milk sales boomed during World War II.
In addition to putting the story of the business and nostalgia into its in-store products, Mullen’s storefront also helps the brothers to create and try new flavors or products. The store provides the business a test market for its products, so if something gains popularity at the restaurant, it can quickly be put in packaging and distributed to stores.
Adam, the general manager of the store and the creator of Mullen’s long list of flavors, said the store is as important to their product’s future as any other thing they have.
“I’ll come up with a recipe and if certain ones hit, those will go to the stores. If certain ones don’t sell as much, then it’s probably not a good choice for retail, though all of our ice cream is good,” Adam said. “We want people to come back and have memories here...We want the story on the packaging with our quality taste, too. We want people to get the same experience in the stores as when they walk in the doors. That’s the challenge.”
The brothers also talked about a possible integration of the store’s parking lot into a more public area for people to bring out their food and desserts. Adam said the hope would be to change the parking lot to make the entry not so abrupt and to implement a wheelchair ramp at the front door. Also, with the future changes to Main Street on the horizon, Josh said it would be a good opportunity for change as a response to the increasing walkability of downtown.
“It’s a great opportunity for people to carry out food and sit. We would have cafe tables outside and people could see Main Street in a lot of places,” Josh said. “(Redevelopment) is good for us and good for Watertown first and foremost.”
Although the company is trying to impact the world far beyond Wisconsin’s borders, it still wants to honor its Watertown and Wisconsin roots.
“Some tastes are traditional Wisconsin. Kringles, Honey Acres, Wisconsin cheese—people need to know the really special food and beverage flavors in Wisconsin and we need to do that too,” Josh said. “The goal is to be a national brand. We have a tremendous rising product and people want nostalgia....We could be a large regional brand, but I feel there is more potential than that.”
Although it may be a local treasure now, it shouldn’t be long before Mullen’s is Watertown’s worst kept secret.