Women do incredible things. Here, we feature the stories of women who are a part of the Southeast Missouri community by way of living here, being from here or passing through. We hope these stories inspire you to connect with others and that they encourage you to be who you are in the world. We need you and your unique gifts.
This story was first published in the February 2019 issue of “The Best Years (TBY).”
It sits at the intersection of highways D and E in Oak Ridge, Missouri, a tin building from 1911 with a front wall of windows. It’s the place local high school students stop in for breakfast each morning, the place farmers stop in for lunch, the place people know each other. It used to be a hardware shop, and then a secondhand store. Now, it’s the Mudcat Coffee House, a tucked-away gem that feels like home to the locals, owned by Rebecca Moore and her husband, Ronald.
Inside, eight sets of vintage Formica-top tables and mismatched chairs — some floral cloth, some yellow leather, some wicker with brown cushions — invite the customer to sit down. It smells like food frying, and customers can watch this happen as Moore cooks their order: the grill and coffee areas are in the open behind the bar, with no wall separating the cook from the customers.
Acoustic music plays from speakers, Moore’s local photography decorates the back wall, and an antique door with no connection to the history of the building announces that behind it lies the “Studio Office Jerideb Publishing Co.”
Hanging from the ceiling, in the front window: a giant, metal catfish.
The decoration, which Moore, her husband and son found at a flea market, is the namesake of the restaurant-coffee shop. Moore has created coffee drinks, such as the Gato Caliente, or “Hot Cat,” to go along with the the business’ name, complementing the Mississippi River geography of the region.
As she patties up ground hamburger for a bacon cheeseburger (with extra bacon), Moore banters with regular customer Varina Luttrull, who works at Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship just a few miles down the road.
“More meat than bread,” Luttrull jokingly instructs Moore.
She adds, “She’s awesome. The food is good, the atmosphere is friendly.” Then, raising her voice a bit so Moore can hear her, “She’s a food pusher.”
“I’m not a pusher,” Moore yells, laughing over her shoulder, above the noise of the sizzling grill.
Moore first began her coffee endeavor in 2015 when the Oak Ridge mayor asked if she would be interested in turning the front lobby of her photography studio in Oak Ridge — across the street from the Mudcat’s current location — into a place where farmers could have coffee, since the Oak Ridge Market had closed. Moore and her husband weren’t using the space for anything else, so they decided to give it a go. By the time they were ready to open, however, the market, which is now called Flying Blue Jay Cafe, had reopened as West End. They decided to move ahead with their plans anyway, and opened the Mudcat.
In 2017, Moore moved the shop across the street to its current location, and added a full menu.
Cooking, Moore says, is “all about building each element, each flavor and making it look good, too.” She learned to cook, as the locals say, from “the school of grandma’s kitchen,” learning from her mother to use different spices and experiment in the kitchen.
Creating the aesthetic of the Mudcat building, too, has been a labor of love. When they bought it, Moore’s husband gutted the building, added the wooden trim to the doorways, and put up the back wooden wall, which came from the Oak Ridge bank building dating from 1836. The bar, which Moore’s husband also made, is created from a tree that stood on his father’s farm near Oak Ridge, which blew over when strong winds came through the area nearly a decade ago. The bricks on the floor that greet customers as they enter are from a flue behind the building. The vent hood above the grill was made by a local farmer, from his grain bin. The ceiling is original.
In the basement of the restaurant is a jail holding cell, used when the town was first founded.
“I like that they try to keep the old buildings and they try to reuse stuff from buildings to preserve what is dying out,” says local Colin Harrison, who is a regular at the Mudcat. “They’ve done an excellent job with this place. They didn’t try to just modernize it. They tried to incorporate all of the old, which I think is neat.”
The business is an exchange of giving and receiving, Moore has learned. When her husband was having medical issues while traveling for work in Texas, Moore kept the Mudcat open for an extra day and a half before flying out to see him, since she had promised she would be open for a baptism celebration. The first day back from her trip, Moore says customers had put $150 in her tip jar by 8:30 a.m. Throughout the day, the kindness continued: people came in to order $4 coffee and then put $40 in the jar.
“They said I help the community so much that they wanted to give back to me,” Moore says. “It was just their way to show that love back to me.”
This, for Moore, is what makes the long hours and hard work worthwhile.
“All my regulars that come in, and even as a first-time person coming in, I want you to feel like it’s your home, very welcoming,” Moore says. “They’re like family. They know my good days, my bad days. I know their good days, bad days.”
It’s a place where anyone can feel like a local.