Mug for mug

A friendly exchange of cups at Willalby’s Cafe.

A friendly exchange of cups at Willalby’s Cafe.

Have you ever stopped into a bar or restaurant and been served a drink in a glass or mug so unique and cool you thought about stealing it? Maybe you did and then had to live with the mild shame you felt each time you used it. Maybe you chickened out but later regretted not committing that petty crime. Well, Willalby’s Cafe sees you and has a solution.

Willalby’s is a cozy diner in between Ha Long Bay and Capitol City Tattoo on Williamson Street. Kitschy commemorative plates, unicorn fantasy mirrors and psychedelic chalk murals cover the walls. An eclectic mix of music blares at a surprising volume for a dining space but at a level necessary for the kitchen staff to hear it over the hood fans. The concise menu is filled out with breakfast basics including huge pancakes, omelets, and vegan biscuits and gravy. And your coffee always arrives in a fun, random mug.

On a recent visit, my wife’s coffee showed up in a “Sexy Senior Citizen” mug and she joked with a friendly server named Tommy about stealing it. He said we could take it as long as we promised to bring back two replacement mugs. We were dumbstruck by the generosity and faith in humanity we just witnessed. There was also a black octagon-shaped mug that was unpleasant to drink out of—less desirable, but still memorable. 

In exchange for the one we liked, I brought them a cheesy Valentine’s Day mug and the “horses deserve better” mug I grabbed when The Onion‘s Madison office closed down.

Many of Willalby’s mugs—which typically only last about three months due to breakage, chipping and other general wear and tear—come from St. Vincent de Paul down the road. Some come from donations, including an entire case of Oscar Mayer retirement mugs that was dropped off a few years ago. And a small amount of the mugs come from honest patrons who promised to replace what they took.

When I returned with our replacement mugs, Tommy told me more about the exchange program that he said was put in place by Nathan Prince, who’s owned Willalby’s since 2010. He said mug exchanges aren’t exactly commonplace since they typically require a customer to vocalize either a deep admiration for a mug or a willingness to steal it, and then the servers need to remember to mention the one-for-two swap. But when it does happen, customers almost always hold up their end of the bargain and sometimes show remorse if they feel they’ve taken too long to bring in their contributions.

“It’s very cute,” Tommy said, agreeing that the mug exchange is a good proactive response to the specter of drinkware theft. “You don’t have to steal it. Just bring us two back and you can have whatever you want.”

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

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