Mullen’s Dairy Bar name secured, expansion and growth planned in Watertown

WATERTOWN — The brothers Keepman felt confident in the future of their business, a long-established ice cream shop in this city’s downtown.

But for the past three years it was in the hands of the courts to determine who actually owned the rights to the Mullen’s Dairy Bar name.

On Feb. 4, Matt, Josh and Adam Keepman got their answer and they can keep using the Mullen’s name.

And now the trio is following through on their business plan that calls for doubling the production and cold storage space in the back of the shop, continuing to grow its wholesale business and, later this year, making a push to go national with the beloved Mullen’s brand that was established here 88 years ago.

“It’s crazy it took this long, but we’re obviously happy with the decision,” said Matt Keepman, who lives in Dallas, Texas. “We felt confident the facts were on our side. We just wished it would have played out a little quicker.”

The Keepmans, who reopened the business in May 2017, plan to raise between $500,000 and $1 million this year from investors to help fund their wholesale expansion and push their ice cream and sorbet products into retailers around the country.

Other plans include finding a distributor. The Keepmans currently deliver their ice cream to more than 40 locations between Madison and Milwaukee using a 2008 Mercedes sprinter van purchased from Kraemer Wisconsin Cheese, another longtime Watertown business that was founded in the 1920s.

The Keepmans want to add cafe seating on the sidewalk in front of their shop and an outdoor deck in the parking lot. The moves come as a $10 million expansion of the Watertown Public Library is planned across the street and just to the east, buildings on the south side of West Main Street in the 100 block are being removed to make way for a public plaza that will include a splash pad, seating, a kayak launch and improved access to the Rock River.

“It’s going to be good for us,” Adam Keepman, 41, said of the downtown improvements. “We’re excited for all of the changes coming about. I’m looking forward to our busy season.”

Court battle

This month’s ruling by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ends a tumultuous and public fight that involved one of the most popular ice cream shops in the state.

However, the court case didn’t directly involve the Keepmans. Instead, the fight for the name was between Ron and Gloria Luepke, who purchased the business in 1997, and Troy and Shannon Milbrath who, in 2005, purchased some of the assets of the business and signed a licensing agreement with the Luepkes that allowed them to use the Mullen’s Dairy Bar name in the operation of the business.

The Milbraths, however, filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and closed the shop in September 2016 after Ron Luepke, who owns the building at 212 W. Main St., exercised his right not to extend the lease. The Luepkes contended in the lawsuit they filed in November 2016, opposing the Milbraths’ 2015 application for a trademark on the name, that they kept the right to the name as it was not part of the sale to the Milbraths.

Troy Milbrath is seen here in 2016 outside Mullen’s Dairy Bar, which he operated from 2005 to September 2016.

But that was not the only drama. Shortly after learning the lease would not be renewed, Milbrath began dismantling the interior (including cutting up the ice cream counter with a power saw) and announced plans to reopen in another location.

A few weeks later, Milbrath was charged in Jefferson County Circuit Court with 16 felonies and three misdemeanors for allegedly opening and using credit cards and loans in the name of his business partner and his business partner’s wife with balances that exceed $65,000. In 2017, Milbrath entered a plea of no contest in Jefferson County Circuit Court to one felony charge that resulted in a prohibition against him of operating a business, being self-employed or entering into any business relationship until 2020.

One of the main contentions by the Luepkes in their court fight with Milbrath was that they had financed part of the sale of the business to the Milbraths and that an addendum, written by the Milbraths’ attorney, stipulated that the Milbraths could use but not own the Mullen’s Dairy Bar name. Attempts to reach Milbrath were unsuccessful.

“We are not swayed by the unconvincing testimony of Mr. Milbrath that he did not review Addendum A ‘in detail,’ did not understand it, and believed the Milbraths would own the (trade)mark,” the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board wrote. “Mr. Milbrath’s deposition testimony from his bankruptcy proceeding suggests that he rather conveniently fails to take responsibility for his signature on legal documents when he considers it expedient to do so. His criminal conviction also casts doubt on his credibility.”

Today, the Keepmans own the business and use the name under a licensing agreement with the Luepkes. Once the Keepmans pay off a loan, the Luepkes are expected to transfer the name to them.

Mullen’s Dairy Bar was founded in downtown Watertown in 1932 and at one time delivered milk throughout portions of Dodge and Jefferson counties. The focus now is on ice cream and the shop, which is located in a historic building across the street from the Watertown Public Library, which will soon undergo a $10 million expansion.

Long history

Mullen’s was founded in 1932 by Frank Mullen Sr. and his sons in a small building just west of the current location. In 1939, the milk-bottling operation moved into its present site, a building constructed in 1907. Bill Mullen, Frank Mullen’s grandson, purchased the business in 1976 before selling to Luepke in 1997.

Adam Keepman lives near the former Mullen family farm while Josh Keepman lives in a home constructed in 1910 that had been owned by Bill Mullen and is just a few blocks from the shop.

“I can attest that Bill Mullen took good care of not only his business but of his home,” Josh Keepman, 45, said last week, as he sat at a table inside the shop that has been re-created to reflect its strong history and ties to the city. “We opened (in 2017) as Mullen’s Dairy Bar and we aren’t looking back. I’m glad we did. There’s a lot of investment that goes into growing a brand. We’re just staying the course.”

The signatures of former owners and employees of Mullen’s Dairy Bar grace historic signs inside the business. For decades the ice cream shop has provided jobs for high school students.

That path entailed a complete remodel of the shop, including the addition of a bathroom on the main floor. The Keepmans bought the building from the Luepkes in 2018. The brothers won’t say how much money they’re spending on expanding the production facility and adding a second 40-foot-wide by 60-foot-long freezer.

Big plans

The wholesale operation began in spring 2019 and now includes about a dozen flavors that are sold primarily in pints for $4.99 to $5.99 in stores. They include Metcalfe’s Market and Festival Foods in Madison, Ken’s Meat Market in Monona, Lake Mills Market, several Piggly Wiggly stores and more than 30 other locations in southern and southeastern Wisconsin. If other retailers like Woodman’s Market, Pick ‘n Save and stores beyond Wisconsin pick up the brand, the Keepmans may have to decide on whether to find a co-packer to make their product or to build their own production facility.

Containers of ice cream are sold out of a freezer at Mullen’s Dairy Bar in Watertown but are also being sold in  stores in southern and southeastern Wisconsin.

“Each year has had its challenges but also its successes,” Matt Keepman said. “We certainly have new challenges coming up.

But the Keepmans have also received a big assist.

In September, Mullen’s was among 10 businesses selected from 40 applicants to be a part of Food & Beverage Wisconsin’s fourth accelerator class. The nine-month program is designed specifically for entrepreneurs of Wisconsin-based food, beverage, ingredient, packaging, or equipment manufacturers or technology companies with demonstrated sales and ambitions to grow their business. Others selected include Forage Kombucha in Fitchburg; Nutkrak, a candied pecan company in Madison; and Rally Energy in Sun Prairie, which makes caffeinated mints.

Memorabilia and artifacts relating to the history of Mullen’s Dairy Bar are displayed inside the business that was founded in 1932.

The Mullen’s name, however, is one of the Keepman’s greatest assets and one they would like to make as popular as Culver’s, founded in Sauk City in 1984. The custard chain now has more than 700 locations throughout the country.

The Keepmans have no plans for other restaurants, but they’re aiming to get their ice cream in hundreds or perhaps thousands of stores nationwide.

“You’ve got to stick to your guns, keep quality, keep consistency and just hold on tight and hope that everything works out in your favor,” Adam Keepman said. “That’s all you can ask for. Keep a good vibe and keep it pushing forward.”

Barry Adams, Wisconsin State Journal | Photos by John Hart

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