Coffee cup connection: Central Arkansas restaurant using mugs to bond with regulars

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — There is no place like home for the holidays, the saying goes. Sometimes that home is with the family you are born into; sometimes, it is with the family you choose.

This holiday season, a local restaurant has found a new way to make its regulars feel at home.

Gadwall’s Grill asked its customers to give it their coffee cups. It has received dozens already, with the promise of many more to come soon.

What started with the frustration of having generic coffee cups frequently break led co-owner Shea Bryant to come up with a way to connect the long-time, neighborhood restaurant even closer to its regular diners.

“This is way more fun,” Bryant said, standing in front of two dozen mugs on the restaurant’s bar counter. “I mean, Alltel! How fun is that? They’ve been out of business for years, or, they sold out years ago. Candy canes. So, you just never know what you’re going to get.”

But she knows from whom she will get them. Her parents opened Gadwall’s 30 years ago and she and her brother continue to run it. She estimated that the restaurant has hundreds of regulars. “We love it,” she said. “We love it. I love being able to go to the grocery store, see people I know. I know their families, their kids. We’ve watched them grow up here.”

Jeremy Jeffery is one of those regulars. He said he has come to Gadwall’s ever since he moved to the area more than 10 years ago. “We come in here for breakfast a lot on the weekends,” he said. “Friday and Saturday morning, Sunday mornings when we’re able to. And I’ve always kind of paid attention to the coffee cups.”

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He dropped by Tuesday afternoon to drop off a handful of his old mugs. Since Bryant posted her request on the restaurant’s Facebook page last Friday, people have brought her more than 20, though many others have said they would come with some after Christmas.

“Everybody has mugs,” Bryant mentioned. “You just end up with them and they get in your cabinet and you don’t want to throw them away, because you’re like, ‘but I love that one!’ You know? So, they can bring it to their second home, and we can use it and they feel like it’s going to a good place, instead of, like, tossing them out.”

Bryant started incorporating guests’ mugs into Gadwall’s supply a couple of years ago. Jeffery began noticing them last year and enjoyed them so much he started taking photos of each new mug served to him. He posts them to his Instagram account and adds #GadwallsCoffeeCups. “And I can go back,” he explained, “and see them, and every time I get a new cup, I try to go post it on there.”

Jeffery said he especially enjoys drinking coffee from a Hershey’s mug because he assumes it was meant for hot chocolate. He and his wife also had a long discussion about another mug, with each unsure about whether the animal on it was a llama or an alpaca. (They never came to a resolution.)

While the drink inside helps countless Arkansans begin their day, the mug, itself, is a connection to the past and the people in their lives. Jeffery knows this well.

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“My wife and I actually met in a coffee shop,” he explained, “so people love to get us mugs for Christmas and for birthdays, and stuff. You can only keep so many mugs in the cupboard! And when we saw this, this is like, ‘this is great because we can give these cups to Gadwall’s and we can see them again!’ And so, it’s not just throwing them away and getting rid of them forever.”

Bryant said she feels like she has learned more about her customers from seeing their mugs, and hopes they will learn more about each other, too. She said nobody has been served their own mug yet, but she is excited for the moment when that finally happens.

“I’m gonna get them all, one of these days,” Jeffery said.

Bryant said she hopes to get a couple hundred mugs. If so, Jeffery will have lots of breakfasts and lots of coffees at Gadwall’s as he completes the set.