Dining at Murry’s: New Musicians, Same Song

  • Photos by Lana Eklund
  • This story originally appeared in the February 2024 relationship issue of COMO Magazine.
Murrys Laughing At Bar

The next generation of Murry’s has new energy but age-old loyalties.

Keeping company with iconic, long-standing Columbia dining institutions such as Shakespeare’s, The Heidelberg, Booches, and the Pasta Factory, local favorite Murry’s has stood the test of time.

Murry’s eclectic, no-frills menu and casual atmosphere are the local diner’s hallmarks, known by both locals and visitors alike. An anomaly in the restaurant world, it’s a non-franchised, locally owned establishment that has continued to thrive for nearly forty years in one of the toughest industries.

“Beloved” is an understatement when it comes to the fierce loyalty of devoted Murry’s customers who frequent the bar and dining room. 

“Our customers feel a real ownership and want to make sure ‘their bar’ is being well taken care of,” says Sarah Lark, one of four current owners. She laughs about the common questions customers have for new bartenders: “What’s your name? Where are you from?”

Mick Jabbour, who owned Booches in the early eighties, originally opened Murry’s at 3107 Green Meadows Way, and named the restaurant for a customer who played a lot of snooker at Booches. In 1985, Jabbour realized he couldn’t handle the demands of two restaurants and sold Murry’s to Bill Sheals and Gary Moore, who was a former Booches employee. To avoid the cost of registering a new name, the new co-owners decided to keep the name.

In the early days, Sheals cooked while Moore bartended, serving mostly a customer base that consisted of their friends. 

“When Bill and Gary first opened, business was pretty slow, so all their buddies would come in and hang out at the bar,” Lark says. 

It was, in fact, the original bar crowd after whom many menu favorites are named including Bleu Chips Cheese Bread (Chip Godfrey) and Brock’s Green Pepper Rings (Brock Jones).

Over the next thirty-six years, Sheals and Moore worked to create not only an establishment known for its welcoming atmosphere and good food, but also incorporated good jazz. Working with John Poses, founder of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series (and the J.P.’s Grilled Cheese) and eventually Tom Andes of the Tom Andes Trio, Murry’s became one of the few spots in Columbia to regularly feature live jazz.

When it comes to restaurant legacies, among the former Murry’s employees who now own or co-own their own establishments are Deb Rust at Tellers, Leigh Lockhart at Main Squeeze, Sanford Speake at Sycamore Restaurant, and Walker Claridge at Broadway Brewery.

Murry’s made headlines in September 2021 when Sheals and Moore passed the torch to new but familiar locals: former MFA Oil CEO Mark Fenner, former food/beverage rep Jesse Lark, and long-time employees Angie Sampson and Sarah Lark.

“We were handed really big shoes to fill, but Bill and Gary made it easy. Murry’s is like a soundboard that they have been tweaking the dials for the last thirty years and have found just the right setting,” says Sarah.

Working in restaurants since she was 15, Angie Sampson joined the Murry’s crew in 1998 as a busser working her way up to hostess, server, and eventually manager.

“I was working for people who made it really easy to work here and I fell in love with this place. They were the best bosses — side-by-side with us in the trenches, bussing tables and running food,” Sampson says.

Sampson oversees the front of house including the hiring, training, and scheduling servers, bussers, and hosts.

“As owners, we are still super hands on. We are a great team,” she adds. “I had my first wait shift in years a few weeks ago on a Friday night and I was so nervous, but it was like riding a bike.”

Formerly of Ernie’s, Shiloh, and Teller’s, Sarah manages the bar including hiring and training bartenders, and ordering. She remembers her interview with Bill in 2009, laughing that they both agreed it was endearingly awkward.

“I got so lucky because bartending shifts at Murry’s are so coveted and I dove right into it,” Sarah recalls. “We chatted for three minutes and then he asked when I could start.”

While not a former Murry’s employee, Jesse Lark brings his corporate experience to the group, offering a fresh, outside perspective of the restaurant industry. Sarah says he’s the techy of the group.

“Jesse does whatever needs to be done, ordered, fixed, built, cooked, designed, Microsoft Excelled, ran, thanked, poured, programmed, processed, praised, washed, or given a high-five,” Sarah laughed. “We’re a restaurant powerhouse — between the three of us [Angie, Jesse and Sarah] we have eighty years of experience.”

Although Fenner did not grow up in the industry, at Murry’s he plays a crucial role.

“Mark is here day in and day out. He’s the behind-the-scenes numbers guy — payroll, bookkeeping, invoices,” Sampson explains. “I remember when I trained Mark as a server. He walked out of the kitchen with two salads and asked how he should know where they go, and I told him the tables are numbered.”

She adds, “He’s so smart and a fast learner and he’s gotten really good at all of it.” 

In addition to a devoted customer base, Murry’s continues to boast an impressive average tenure of employees, both front and back of house, many of whom have ten-plus years of service. And even through the transition, not a single employee or customer was lost.

“It feels like home and that’s why we grow our staff to do everything so that they appreciate every position and learn to love this place,” Sampson gushed. “We make them feel valued and part of the family and they make a ton of money. Happy staff makes good food.”

Sarah notes, “Our employees celebrate holidays and birthdays together. Murry’s is a culture where people are close-knit, and it makes everyone appreciate where they are and what others have done.”

Additionally, full-time employees receive benefits including health insurance, retirement, and paid vacation.

“So many regulars plan their vacation around the third week of July because we are always closed and they know that,” Sampson says.

Although it caused quite a stir when ownership changed hands, Sampson and Lark reaffirmed that little has changed since — including the menu, regulars, and staff. The team takes baby steps to make any alterations.

Among the few updates is the integration of a point of sale (POS) system.

“That’s one of those ‘fresh eyes’ things that Jesse brought,” Sarah Lark explains. “Pushing the keys on that old cash register behind the bar was like ‘chunk, chunk, chunk,’ but these new systems will blow your mind — learning new things suck for six weeks but it is worth it.”

Samspon adds, “When we added the Brie Fries and the Jim’s Bobs [named for kitchen manager Jimmy Evans, a twelve-plus year employee] to the menu it was on the radio and people went nuts. But we reassured them these were minor additions, not changes, and everything else is still exactly the same.”

Two weeks after takeover, multiple customers requested that the lights be a bit brighter, so the lights were turned up.

“Gary comes in two weeks later to get a beer and check on us and he asked if we could turn the lights down,” Sampson says. “I laughed and told him you don’t work here anymore. But he used to always say, ‘The lights are low for a reason. Everyone looks better in the dark.’”

Sarah adds, “Bill and Gary come in now to hang out and enjoy themselves and they get mobbed like celebrities.”

The new team agrees that it’s the comfortable atmosphere and simplicity and consistency of the food that has contributed to Murry’s success.

“Bill’s approach to food was to buy high quality ingredients and do as little to mess it up until it gets to the table,” Sarah says. “We buy the best ingredients we can buy and prepare them simply so the ingredients can shine. It’s approachable — no need for need for crazy sauces.”

Angie adds, “The best thing about Murry’s is that you can come in a prom dress, cut-offs, or a business suit — it is just made for everyone. The price points, the atmosphere — anyone can walk in and feel comfortable. That is why it is and will continue to be so great.” 

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