Is Another Tradition in Trouble?

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Another Month of May tradition is in danger of disappearing into the history books. If you take in the Month of May each year from your couch watching on TV, this won’t mean much to you. But for those of us that have been spending our May weekends in Central Indiana, this will be quite a blow if it comes to pass. This time, the decision has nothing to do with IMS, Doug Boles, NBC, Roger Penske or Penske Entertainment.

We learned Monday that a favorite of the late Robin Miller – The Mug-n-Bun Drive-In – is up for sale. Although the asking price differs depending on which article you read, the consensus is that $2.2 Million will buy you a historic drive-in restaurant on the west side of Indianapolis, in the Town of Speedway on 10th Street.

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Most of today’s young consumers lean toward more healthy food choices, although a trip through any random Walmart might say differently. Just this past weekend, I had to make a quick trip to our closest Walmart. While I saw many young people that appeared to be under 30, the word girth filled my head a lot more than the phrase fit & healthy.

Whatever the case, authentic drive-in restaurants; where you sit in the car and turn your lights on to indicate you’d like a car-hop to come take your order, are going the way of the powdered-wig. No one seems to want them anymore – especially when your choices are deep-fried foods and burgers & hot dogs.

Susan and I are in disagreement on how to consume Mug-n-Bun fare. She prefers the old-fashioned way of ordering from and eating in the car with the tray hanging off the side of the window. The Mug-n-Bun built an eat-in dining room across the parking lot about fifteen years ago or so. I prefer eating in there, especially after the contents of my Coney Dog went all over my car seat about ten years ago. In the art of compromise, we generally have a 50/50 split on how we eat there.

In Car

Inside

If I’m being totally honest, some of the food is not outstanding there. In 2014, I ate a Pizza Burger there with onion rings (which are one of the best things on the menu) on the night of Fast Friday. While the onion rings did not disappoint, the Pizza Burger had an odd flavor. I had enjoyed one before a couple of years earlier, and it was delicious. That was not the case this time. I usually have pretty much of a cast-iron stomach, but on this occasion, I awoke about 3:00 am fighting an increasingly queasy stomach. I usually win those battles, but not that night – I finally lost the battle around 5:00 am, leaving me pretty-well drained for Saturday’s qualifying. Needless to say, that was my last Mug-n-Bun Pizza Burger.

I’m also not too crazy about their tenderloins, because they aren’t real tenderloins – they’re fritters. For the uninitiated, a true breaded pork tenderloin sandwich is a hunk of pork tenderloin that is pounded flat and usually very wide. It is then seasoned and breaded, then deep-fried. A fritter is ground and processed pork that is generally a pile of mush shaped into a flat patty. A true tenderloin is irregularly shaped and no two look alike. The fritters at Mug-n-Bun are all the same size and they are all so perfectly round, they look like Frisbees. They are deep-fried, but their breading has no seasoning and they are very flavorless.

Based on the last couple of paragraphs, you might wonder why we still go to the Mug-n-Bun. All of their hot dog based offerings are very good, whether it’s a corn dog, a foot-long Coney or a chili-cheese dog. And as mentioned earlier, their onion rings are excellent and their fries are the crinkle-style fries which I like.

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But what really draws us to the Mug-n-Bun each May is their homemade root beer. I realize some people absolutely despise root beer. Why that is, I don’t know – but Susan and I both really love it. Sometimes, we will go just for the experience of drinking that delicious root beer with the most unique (and good) aftertaste. The best part is that it comes in a giant frosty glass mug. The first sip of that concoction out of that thick, heavy and frosty mug is almost like a little bit of heaven. Sometimes we will eat at one of our other favorite haunts like Dawson’s or Charlie Brown’s and stop off at Mug-n-Bun just for a root beer.

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After the Grand Prix weekend that kicks off the Month of May, we will go to Long’s Donuts on that Sunday morning after the race, then stop off at Mug-n-Bun for a frosty mug full of their famous root beer, before hitting the road to go back home, knowing we will be back in just a few days.

This has been our tradition for well over a decade, but it is in danger of coming to an end, sooner than later. Chances are, we may have already made our last trip to the Mug-n-Bun.

From what I’ve read, it’s very unlikely that someone will buy the drive-in with the idea of continuing the drive-in. Most likely, the land is worth more than the business or building. No matter how much we race fans value the Mug-n-Bun, investors or developers look at it as just an eyesore sitting on a piece of property that would be much better suited for a strip mall to house another Vape Store or a Quick Cash site.

The practical side of me says that a couple of generations ago, people in the area were probably cringing that whatever previously sat on the 10th Street property was being razed to be converted into another drive-in restaurant. They probably felt as betrayed as we do now. But the traditionalist in me doesn’t care about what was there in the 50s, before Mug-n-Bun opened in 1960. All I care about is preserving every facet of my own personal Month of May traditions.

As mediocre as a lot of the food is, there is something comforting about a trip to the Mug-n-Bun. It reminds me of those days as a kid, when my brothers and I would head to Pickwick Lake and we were able to convince my parents that we needed to stop at the Dog-n-Suds Drive-In in Selmer, TN. Although those days were close to sixty years ago, I remember them like they were yesterday. The Dog-n-Suds was probably leveled by 1970, but my recent trips to the Mug-n-Bun brought those memories back to life.

Now, our trips to Mug-n-Bun are in danger of disappearing. If, by some miracle, the business is still going by this coming May, I can assure you that I’ll be making several trips for root beer and a Coney Dog in our three weekends there. Once it’s gone, it’ll be gone forever – and it will join the long and growing list of Month of May traditions to fall by the wayside. I find that kind of sad.

George Phillips

15 Responses to “Is Another Tradition in Trouble?”

  1. It will be a sad day indeed when Mug n Bun closes. I agree with you. Their root beer is the best.

  2. Hate to hear this. The Mug and Bun disappearing? Along with the infield at Indy. Cars on Legends day. Race on Carb day. Only four chances to qualify. Even paying with real money. It goes on and on. How long until we can’t bring food and beverages into the track? Already its become harder and harder to fire up a grill there. If you can get in the infield at all (or afford the extra cost).

    Younger people will never know what a bargain and a treat it was going to IMS in the 70’s and 80’s. Volunteers working the booths to benefit their charities. Parking practically everywhere in the infield. Pretty much able to go anywhere on practice or qualification days. Reasonable prices if you decided to buy food at the track. “A new track record….” etc.

    Change is bad.

  3. Agreed this is sad indeed. Let’s hope the Speedway itself doesn’t disappear like Ontario, Nazareth, etc 🙁

  4. James T Suel Says:

    That’s really sad. I hate to see this disappear.

  5. George how do you keep up to date with the going ons in Indianapolis/Speedway? Do you subscribe to the Indy Star on line? How does a guy living in Nashville ,one of the current busiest cities in the country keep up on naptown? Have you given any thought to relocating to Indianapolis following retirement from employment?

  6. Mug N Bun Drive in has great atmosphere and mediocre food. The secret is to order a fried chicken or pork chop dinner from the Mug N Bun PIZZA shop behind the drive in. Outstanding! But only open for carry out Weds-Sun, 5-9 pm.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    At least I will have my can koozie to remember it by. It’s in my regular rotation, along with a bunch of random non-500 IMS event koozies that my dad buys every Christmas from the IMS store’s year-end fire sale.

    The root beer really was great, the other items I had were fine. I certainly enjoyed the classic drive-in experience compared to the modern mess that is Sonic and it’s absurdly enormous menu boards.

  8. Went once but not my type of food. Don’t want to die if a heart attack or have to buy new trousers.

  9. I’m glad I bought a frosty mug from them last year. I’m hopeful that someone will want to preserve the place.

  10. Rick Johnson Says:

    I, too, am saddened by the possible end to Mug-n-Bun…along with (over the past decade or more):

    – Talk of Gasoline Alley (though I’m happy for Donald that he got to retire on his own terms)
    – Union Jack Pub
    – The IMS Museum booklets that accompanied their exhibitions
    – The Hoosier Hundred
    – Freedom 100
    – Daily Trackside Reports being published on the Indy 500 website during May
    – Additional historical race/time trials uploads (beyond the ones that are already available)
    – Vintage cars on Legends Day
    – The IndyCar Series rule book being available for download (for non-media folks) on the IndyCar website
    – “Indy Live” radio show the week of the 500 (great to go in person during the broadcast)
    – Interviews of drivers and car owners on the stage in Pagoda Plaza during Carb Day and other days
    – An updated edition of the excellent “Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500” by Donald Davidson & Rick Shaffer (it hasn’t been updated in about a decade)
    – Community Day where you could drive your own car for a lap around the track

    Though I lament the absence of these things, I still look forward to going to the 500 like a child looks forward to Christmas morning.

  11. Great blog post, George.
    Root beer is the nectar of the gods.
    But I’ve not gone to Mug n Bun or other drive-in restaurant.

  12. Us old dinosaurs know…nothing is as good as it used to be.

  13. yes.
    sometimes change
    is a whole lot better.
    one example: HDTV.

  14. Seems logical for someone in the area to buy the root beer operation if it is that good and there is money to be made. I once stopped off on the way to see my Buckeyes play at Purdue. We sat in the dining room and I guess I got the pork fritter. Who knew?

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