Mizzou grads tied the knot, traveled the country, then — almost accidentally — saw the birth of Harpo’s.
She was the first waitress at Harpo’s and he was the first chef. Two Mizzou grads, loving each other and loving life in the free-spirited days of the early 1970s. Kate and Earl Palan — aka Kat and Goose — are now 53 years into their happily-ever-after journey and Harpo’s is still thriving as one of Columbia’s most iconic dining watering holes.
Somehow – how, really? — I didn’t know this important family fact until Thanksgiving Day last year. After all, Kat is my sister.
The story begins
“I only worked for a couple of days to help out,” Kat remembers with a bit of hesitation before laughing. “As for those first few days, they were desperate for a waitress.”
She was hired as the first waitress when Harpo’s opened in 1971, the year after Kat and Goose got hitched and after they returned to Columbia to pursue graduate degrees at MU. Goose had teamed up with Harpo’s founder Dennis Harper to offer expertise and direction on setting up the kitchen and the menu that was heavily influenced by the Palan’s VW van excursion to and from the West Coast.
As for those first few days? “Waitressing wasn’t exactly my bailiwick,” Kat continues. “Besides, I was already working as a kindergarten teacher at the U-School on campus. But it’s a fact — I was their first waitress.”
Goose fit into the picture by happenstance. Harper, a recent MU grad, decided he wanted to open a bar in 1971, but bars were required to have a certain percentage of food sales in order to sell hard liquor, Goose recalls in recounting one of the first obstacles Harper faced.
“I think he saw the potential for a really good bar in Columbia,” Goose says, noting that Harper came from Iowa City, Iowa — home to the University of Iowa and many successful bars.
Goose continues, “Dennis approached the graduate department for the College of Agriculture and Food Science on the MU campus, seeking leads on someone who might be interested in helping him with the food service” for the soon-to-open bar and restaurant. “I happened to be in the building that day.”
As a result, Goose and Dennis quickly got acquainted. Dennis, seemingly satisfied with Goose’s credentials, offered Goose the part-time gig as Harpo’s food service manager and head chef. Goose, always up for a challenge, was confident he could handle that position while completing his master’s degree. Not long after, Goose worked to design the kitchen and the menu and helped Dennis find the necessary equipment.
Rewinding one year …
Goose and Kat met in a Mizzou zoology class. Goose graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in food science and Kat with a degree in elementary education. They married in 1970 and moved to Washington, D.C., where Goose worked for a year as the night food production manager for Key Bridge Marriott Hotel. From there, they traded their Camaro for a VW bus (it was the ‘70s, remember) and spent the next year traveling across the U.S.
At the time, Goose was also considering how to fulfill his dream of opening his own restaurant. During Kat and Goose’s cross-country jaunt, they visited and critiqued restaurants along the way, and collected recipes for many of the good meals they enjoyed. Ultimately, they ended up in San Francisco, and by the time their travels ended, Goose came to the realization that owning a restaurant may not be what he wanted after all.
What he really wanted was to teach his trade. In the fall of 1971, they returned to Mizzou so he could earn his master’s in food science, leading to Goose’s chance encounter with Dennis Harper.
Back where they started
The soon-to-be bar and restaurant that Goose played a role in was to be named Harpo’s, a play on the nickname given to Dennis by his ATO fraternity brothers at Mizzou. Its first location was in the old Pizza Hut building on South Seventh Street on the north edge of campus. Almost immediately after opening, Harpo’s was an instant success, mostly with MU students and especially after football games and sundry other athletic events.
At that time, realizing their desperate need for a waitress, they persuaded Kat to fill that role. (Kat laughingly prefers the term “drafted.”) Goose recollects helping to prepare 50 gallons of Bloody Marys for Saturday Mizzou football games, and reconfiguring refrigerators so the beer could be pumped directly out of the refrigerators without having to open the doors.
Within the first few weeks of opening, Harpo’s was so successful that after most football games, the crowds swelled to overflowing onto the street. As Goose recalls, it wasn’t a completely positive experience for other businesses and residents in the immediate area. After multiple complaints, when the first year’s lease came due, the landlord elected to not renew and Harpo’s was temporarily moved to a storage facility and “on hold” until a new location was found.
The journey continues
Goose had completed his master’s degree in food science and accepted a teaching position at Southwest Minnesota University in Marshall, Minn., so that concluded his stint at Harpo’s. (Not to dredge up much more of her story, but Kat’s waitressing gig ended much earlier.)
Goose says he enjoyed his time at Harpo’s and while at the original location was able to use his previous year’s experiences in the hotel and restaurant business — and recipe-collecting travels — to bring an elevated flair to the Harpo’s cuisine and menu. Lunches and dinners at Harpo’s were not only popular with the MU students, but also with the entire community.
Of course, the menu included the usual choices of burgers, hot dogs, and fries, but Goose was able to jazz up even those simplest of entrees with his special sauces. The three recipes that were the most popular menu items in that first year were Goose’s mushroom burger, his Harpo’s Special Sauce served with the “Knackwurst Platter” and other sandwiches, and his French onion Soup.
For those of you who are old enough to have dined at Harpo’s in the early days, let the following recipes bring you warm, fuzzy comfort food memories:
SHERRY MUSHROOM SAUCE
Served on steakburger
1 cup beef consommé
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ pound mushrooms
2 tablespoons sherry
In a saucepan, heat consommé to a boil. In a frying pan melt butter and add flour. Stir until the mixture (rue) forms a ball. When the consommé reaches a boil, stir in rue slowly, using a wire whip until desired thickness. If too thin, add more rue; if too thick, add hot water and turn down to simmer.
In a frying pan, place a small amount of butter and add sliced mushrooms. Sauté mushrooms until tender. Then add to brown gravy mixture. Ten minutes before serving stir in sherry. If the sauce is too light in color, add kitchen bouquet.
HARPO’S SPECIAL SAUCE
Served on the (then popular) Harpo’s knackwurst platter and other sandwiches.
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup chili sauce
¼ cup chopped onions
¼ cup pickle relish
½ cup tomato ketchup
2 teaspoons Worchester sauce, 1 teaspoon hot sauce, salt and pepper.
Combine all ingredients and use as spread for all sandwiches. Onion will add flavor as they age.
FRENCH ONION SOUP
Borrowed from the now-defunct Maison des Crepes in Washington, D.C.
¼ cup butter
3 cans beef consommé
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
4 slices Gruyere cheese
Slice onions thinly and cut into quarters. Sauté in butter until transparent, about 15 minutes. Add paprika while cooking. Combine broth, Worcestershire sauce, and onion, then bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper.
Sauté’ bread cubes in butter. Add garlic and remove when brown.
Put soup into bowls, float croutons, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, and lay one slice of Gruyere cheese over ingredients. Bake at 450 degrees until cheese is melted.
Fortunately for Dennis, it wasn’t too long before the building located at Tenth and Cherry, previously occupied by Kline’s Cafeteria, became available. For Harpo’s, it would prove to be a longstanding location with a building and land large enough to accommodate the needs of the growing restaurant and bar. Dennis bought the property, moved what was needed from storage, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Continuing on this ride down memory lane — for those old enough to reminisce on the drinking/eating establishments in Columbia in the early ‘70s — following is a list of some of the more popular restaurants/bars at the time, just to name a few:
The Stables Bar, Italian Village, The Heidelberg, Black & Gold, The Hide-a-way, The Den, the Dixie Club, Max’s Campus Shack, The Tiger Club, Booches, Ford’s Theater, The Stein Club, and Gladstone Manufacturing.
For Kat and Goose, life was good. After six and a half years in Minnesota, they moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma, where Goose taught at Oklahoma State University while simultaneously earning his Ph.D. in Food Nutrition Institution Management. From there they relocated to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he taught hospitality management at Southern Mississippi University.
While in Hattiesburg, Kat earned her Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy. And finally, in 1998, they both took positions at Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) in Oxford, where Goose and Kat, now both retired, still live.
I learned the story — really, how did I not know it already? — last Thanksgiving when my three sisters and I, and our families from all across the country, came together at a family farm in Simpson, Illinois.
It was enjoyable for me to take this trip down memory lane with Kat and Goose, reflecting on their fun and memorable times at Mizzou. I’m very proud of what they have accomplished in their careers, and for me to be able to say my sister was the first waitress and my brother-in-law the first chef at Harpo’s is an honor because, in my opinion, Harpo’s was and still is the most iconic restaurant/bar in Columbia.
Editor’s note: Some details for this article were gleaned from an article titled “Harpo’s Hits 50,” from the August 2021 online edition of Show-Me Mizzou. Read that article here.
From the Harpo’s Bar & Grill website: After a legendary 38-year run of building Harpo’s into one of the most respected brands in Missouri, Dennis passed the owner’s torch to Chuck and Anna Naylor in 2010.