Mullen’s Dairy Bar has been a hometown favorite for nearly a century in Watertown, Wisconsin. Originally owned by the Mullen family, Mullen’s Dairy Bar was once the production site for milk, cream, sour cream and cottage cheese.
Mullen’s Dairy Bar has been a hometown favorite for nearly a century in Watertown, Wisconsin. Originally owned by the Mullen family, Mullen’s Dairy Bar was once the production site for milk, cream, sour cream and cottage cheese. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
WATERTOWN, Wis. – In the heart of downtown Watertown stands a beloved ice cream parlor people have been flocking to for nearly a century. Serving up homemade ice cream is what Mullen’s Dairy Bar is best known for, but the restaurant offers much more than food to those who walk through its doors.  
“We value traditions and family here,” said Adam Keepman, who owns the business with his brothers, Josh and Matt. “Not much changes at Mullen’s Dairy Bar, and I like that. We’re kind of that lucky place young kids through adults enjoy. Customers will say they remember their grandpa bringing them here, and that’s the appeal of Mullen’s. People like the familiar and the nostalgia. Special memories are made here.”
Mullen’s Dairy Bar is a hometown favorite soon to celebrate 90 years in business. Carrying on a legacy that began in 1932, the Keepmans are one of two families other than the Mullens to own the historic building and business. The Keepmans bought Mullen’s Dairy Bar and reopened it May 2017 after Mullen’s shut down the previous September.  
“Mullen’s is one of the oldest ice cream parlors, and when it closed in 2016, the town was distraught,” Keepman said. “Luckily, it wasn’t closed for long. We have intense fans as rabid as Packers or Cubs fans, and we also get a lot of out-of-state visitors.”
As the name might imply, dairy is at the root of Mullen’s Dairy Bar. Ice cream in a cone, dish or sundae is their No.1 product followed closely by malts, shakes and cheese curds. Ice cream cakes, ice cream sodas and freezes, ice cream cookie sandwiches, and pints, quarts and half-gallons are also on the menu along with homemade macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, pretzel bites with homemade cheese sauce, and soups. Mullen’s Dairy Bar also sells hamburgers, including cheeseburgers as well as a burger topped off with cheese curds and a homemade cheese sauce.
“The original Mullen’s Dairy Bar produced milk, cream, sour cream, cottage cheese and orange juice while a tiny space up front was devoted to retail,” Keepman said. “The Mullens used to do home deliveries of milk and had eight delivery drivers until the early 1980s. Our older customers grew up with Mullen’s delivered to their house.”
Mullen’s ice cream is made onsite using an ice cream mix from Neenah Classic Mix that contains 12% butterfat. Using the same base recipe as the Mullen family, Keepman expanded past the core offerings and created new flavors.
“I went beyond the norm and started to treat the ice cream barrel like my soup barrel,” he said. “I try to use fresh ingredients when I can instead of institutional additives. Our ice cream is somewhere in between Ben and Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs. Some of it is chunky, and some is more elegant and refined.”
One of Keepman’s most popular creations is Dirt Cake, which is made with devil’s food cake mix, Oreo cookies and buttercream frosting.
“Everyone goes absolutely nuts for Dirt Cake,” he said. “Each holiday season, we try to have different specialty flavors too. At Christmas, we’ll offer egg nog, gingerbread and peppermint mocha ice creams and an Irish cream flavor during the spring.”
Mullen’s Dairy Bar sells about 200 gallons of ice cream per week in the winter and 400 gallons per week in the summer. Keepman expects to sell about 600 gallons of ice cream each week this coming summer.
“We’re producing more ice cream than has ever been produced at Mullen’s,” Keepman said. “We’re doing more ice cream than ever in the month of February. We also sell a lot of cheese curds. We buy frozen breaded muenster curds from Kraemer’s Cheese – a local distributor – while the milk for our shakes comes from Sassy Cow Creamery.”
Last summer, the Keepmans opened a second Mullen’s Dairy Bar on the boardwalk at Fowler Lake in Oconomowoc. The seasonal location is open April through October serving dessert from a walk-up window.
“This spring, we’re hoping to add hot dogs and chips to the menu,” Keepman said.
The Keepmans also acquired a new account in Waterford – a deluxe dessert shop called Kravings, which is using the Mullen’s brand ice cream.  
“My brothers’ goal was to develop a wholesale ice cream business, and now our ice cream is sold in nearly 50 shops and restaurants, including Woodman’s and Festival Foods,” Keepman said.  
In summer, Mullen’s Dairy Bar has close to 60 employees between their two stores. In winter, they employ about half that number. The Watertown location is open every day year-round except for Mondays from November through March.
“This place is filled with all sorts of good graces, and there’s so much good feeling here,” Keepman said. “That’s the magic of Mullen’s. It’s so different from any other restaurant or shop in the area. I treat this place like a church because it’s been really sacred to a lot of people for a long time.”  
Mullen’s Dairy Bar also overflows with history. For example, a letter from Ray Kroc – the man who launched the McDonald’s franchise – can be found framed on the wall. Kroc sold milkshake machines earlier in his career, and Mullen’s was one of his accounts.
“We still use those original mixers today,” Keepman said. “It was a special moment when we found that letter. It literally fell on my feet when searching through some historical volumes.”  
Reminding people of simpler times, Mullen’s cozy charm creates the perfect atmosphere for enjoying a sweet escape from everyday life. Capturing the vibe of a bygone era, the ambiance in Mullen’s Dairy Bar is that of an old-fashioned ice cream shop where stools line the counter and old-time rock and roll music plays in the background.
“People can come in here and tell us their troubles because they feel comfortable at Mullen’s,” Keepman said. “That’s a nice feeling. But no matter what people come here for, we try to do it right every time.”
Embracing his business’ close connection to the dairy industry, Keepman appreciates the consistency and availability of ingredients he uses to make the products his customers demand.
“I think we’re lucky to be Wisconsinites and have access to dairy farmers’ quality milk which allows us to create the products that drive our business’ bottom line,” Keepman said. “Wisconsin is the dairy state and the dairy capitol, and I’m proud to have it be a local tradition we can rely on. We’re in the heart of it all.”
Operating the business with a love and respect for time-honored traditions, Keepman is devoted to preserving the heritage and authenticity of Mullen’s Dairy Bar while continuing to grow with the times.  
“I’m proud of what we do here,” he said. “People love their treats, especially ice cream, and we try to have the best ice cream around.”