When a relative who was recently visiting Pullman for the first time asked Maddie Freiberg (’09 Comm.) for restaurant and bar recommendations, one spot immediately came to mind. “I spent a fair amount of time at The Coug,” she says. “It was always my number one choice. Whenever I’m in Pullman, stopping at The Coug is one of my top priorities.”
Generations of Washington State University students have come to Cougar Cottage, commonly called The Coug, to relax after class or finals, meet friends, and forge bonds that last lifetimes. And they continue to return as alumni with their old college buddies or parents, children, and grandchildren—often Cougs themselves—to reminisce over burgers and beers.
“The Coug, at its best, represents Cougar spirit,” says owner Bob Cady (x’00 Hosp. Busi. Mgmt.), who frequented The Coug as an undergraduate and bought the business 18 years ago. “It represents the multigenerational shared experience that surrounds WSU.”
The ever-popular pub, which opened in 1932 and has always catered to students, celebrates 90 years this year. New signage is expected to arrive this summer. And the highly Instagrammable east interior wall where patrons leave their signatures is set to be repainted in early August to accommodate a new round of names. It’s a tradition that started before Sharpies and paint pens. Patrons have been making their mark on The Coug since its earliest days, when students would carve their names into tables with penknives.
Back then, The Coug was known for its toasted sandwiches, house-made cake and pie, and, according to a menu found in a 1935-to-1939 scrapbook in the Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections at WSU Libraries, “thick malted milks.” Coffee was a nickel. Milkshakes and ice cream sundaes cost 15 cents. Soup and most sandwiches were a dime. Booth service had a 10-cent minimum per person. And the most expensive menu items—egg malted milk, and ham and eggs with toast and apple butter—cost a quarter.
Today, burgers are $8 to $10.50. Pints and pitchers run from $3.75 to $22.75. And all ages are welcome until 8 p.m. The booths are long gone. On game days and most weekend nights, patrons are lucky to get a table. The Coug is often standing-room only, with people packed elbow-to-elbow.
The legendary WSU watering hole and eatery routinely makes lists ranking best college bars in the state and country. And that’s no surprise to Freiberg, a member of The Coug’s exclusive Mug Club. Just 25 new members are selected each semester. “It’s an honor to be in the Mug Club,” she says. “It’s so steeped in tradition. You’re a part of something special, like being a Coug in general. It’s a forever tie to a really special place.”
The Mug Club dates to at least the late 1970s, when The Coug featured Quarter Pounder Nights and patrons could buy a beer for 25 cents. While some members take their mugs with them when they move or graduate, Cady says, “We still take care of about 1,200 mugs between our storage unit and on site at The Coug.” When out-of-town members visit, staff unearth their mugs. “We prefer a week notice,” Cady notes, adding, “While The Coug might look different than it did in the ’30s, ’40s, or ’50s, the general feel and atmosphere of undergrad Cougs spending time together with their friends and enjoying their company is still what we do. That’s the heart of The Coug.”
Keeper of The Coug: A Q&A with Bob Cady
Bob Cady doesn’t remember the first time he went to The Coug. But the College Hill institution played an important role in his undergraduate experience.
The Cougar Cottage, commonly called The Coug, served as the backdrop for countless meetups and celebrations with friends. Cady had such fond memories of the place that he bought the business 18 years ago. This year, it celebrates 90 years in operation.
Opened in 1932, The Coug has served generations of Washington State University students and alumni. Here, Cady (x’00 Hosp. Busi. Mgmt.) talks about its history, appeal, and plans for celebrating its ninetieth anniversary…
When was the first time you went to The Coug?
I don’t remember the first time I went to The Coug. I know it was my sophomore year, and it was Friday for lunch. But I couldn’t tell you if it was during fall or spring.
How often were you there as an undergrad?
For me, it was a lot of daytimes, a lot of afternoons, maybe a couple of beers post-test, things like that. A lot of my memories are just finishing a test, then stopping in with friends for lunch and running into other friends. It was very much a hub in the neighborhood. It was the spot if you wanted to run into someone or meet someone. It was your first choice to meet friends. I remember working on homework on a slow day at lunch and talking with my friends who worked there. It was just a really standard WSU Coug college experience.
Why buy the business?
My long-term goal was to own my own business. I started using my time off to research restaurants and bars that were for sale around the Pacific Northwest, all the way to Montana and Wyoming. A friend of mine, Scott Lennon (’98 Comm.), the original owner of Valhalla, told me The Coug was for sale. It took 13 months to close the deal. When we started, I believe there was some 50 other people interested. It was a very dynamic situation. I really didn’t think I had any kind of shot. I might be the seventh or eighth owner. I purchased The Coug in 2004, and now this is my eighteenth year. I think I’m the second-longest tenured operator at this point. The 20-year lease comes up in 2026.
How did the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic affect The Coug?
COVID stripped The Coug of everything that makes The Coug, The Coug: sitting with people at tables, seeing friends, enjoying each other’s company. All of the things the COVID mandates forced us to do made the worse version of The Coug. We were doing burgers to go for like seven months, and that’s not what we’re about. That’s not what we are.
What is The Coug about?
The Coug is: Come in, find a seat, make some friends. It’s a great place to meet people. It’s a great place to make poor decisions that you’re proud of for the rest of your life. You have so much in common just through the shared experience of going to WSU. It tends to be one of those crazy nights when you meet someone at The Coug and end up in lifelong friendships or relationships. We have a very good track record of getting people together. Selling drinks will happen. Selling burgers will happen. Eating and drinking is what happens while you’re doing everything else.
How has the menu changed since you bought The Coug?
A lot of the food menu has stayed the same. But we’ve shifted from selling hundreds of kegs of cheap beer-to-go to selling craft beer and spirits. A lot of that is just market reactions. The desires of the neighborhood have changed. Craft beer was a very big change. So was the shift to seltzers in the summer of 2018. These changes are about keeping relevant and keeping up with the times. They’re not about erasing this idea of what you thought The Coug was always going to be. The culture is the same. The feel is the same.
Talk about the tradition of customers leaving their marks on The Coug.
August is when we paint the wall and change the number. We celebrate by school year from 1932. I don’t know how far (the painting of the wall) goes back. But I know that it goes back to at least the ’70s. And the tradition of carving your name into The Coug goes back as far as The Coug goes back. It was very common to carry a penknife to sharpen your pencils with. With the inventions of Sharpies, it was just a natural progression. We use paint pens now. But people have been leaving their names on The Coug in one way or another since it used to be a malt shop and everything was made from scratch in the kitchen. People would carve their names into the tables. This is just the modern incarnation of that. It’s a lot easier to just grab a pen; it takes 10 seconds to leave your mark. It used to take 20 minutes to carve your name into a table, something we don’t encourage.
How will you celebrate 90 years of The Coug?
We’re getting new signage. This summer, we will have a marquee with the Cougar logo, and the sides will say Cougar Cottage in Old English-style lettering. There will be a full awning with the signs. The goal is to have it installed in late July, just in time for the ninetieth year. It will provide a great photo opportunity for people, for graduations and games and alumni gatherings. We’ll be able to promote different events and groups. It will be a game-changer. We’re also thinking of doing commemorative pint glasses and T-shirts, limited editions, and selling them online. And we’re thinking about a small staff party, Mug Club reunion, employee reunion, things like that, probably in spring 2023. We’re also starting the process of doing a StoryCorps-style situation, culminating with the one-hundredth anniversary. The ninetieth is a big deal for sure, but the hundredth is where my focus has been.
What’s the history of Mug Club?
There was a Mug Club in the mid- to late ’70s, when The Coug first started serving beer. But (building owner) Brad Augustine (’84 Hosp. Busi. Mgmt.) started the Mug Club that evolved into what we know today. He and his wife, Linda, (’83 Home Econ., Honors) own the building. We have bits and pieces of the early records. From 1980 forward, we have about 3,400 members. I got a mug as an undergrad. Most people take their mugs with them when they move or graduate. But we track and pull mugs for alumni who left theirs here when they come back to town. They can message us on Facebook or they can email. We prefer a week notice. Usually when alumni are coming to town, things are pretty crazy. We still take care of about 1,200 mugs between our storage unit and onsite at The Coug. We have a database, and we have a master list.
How do you become a member?
You have to apply. We go through an evaluation. We post the list. Once the list is posted, you have a few weeks to pay for your mug. It’s $100 for a lifetime membership. It is a discounted price. You get a discount all the time for being in the Mug Club. The mugs are crystal; they’re not glass. We take 50 members a year, 25 each semester. It’s important. It has meaning. It’s more than just they paid their money and they get a discount. These are people who tend to bring more to The Coug than they take from The Coug. They’re people who tend to bring people in. If they’re sitting in the window and their friends walk by and see them, their friends are going to come in and say hi. They tend to be leaders on campus. They tend to be people who are really involved. They tend to be people who are doing their part to represent Cougar spirit and what it means to be a Coug. Past ASWSU presidents are in the Mug Club. There’s a lot of multigenerational Coug families.
Talk about the terrace.
Until the fall of 2017, The Coug was a very nice little building that never looked like it was fully finished. It looked like something was missing. We used a mix of bricks similar to the period when the building was built with the modern bricks. It looks like the terrace was always meant to be there. And it’s been a game-changer for the business. I wanted to capture Pullman’s better weather as much as possible, and the terrace has really become the center of that. As you come off campus, the energy is fantastic. You see all the people who are walking by. You find your friends. Outdoor dining goes a long way toward building community.
How many people work at The Coug?
We normally have 20 to 22 employees on staff. We have two fulltime employees and three non-student employees. Everyone else is a student. That reflects the policy I’ve had since I took over. The Coug should be something that is fun and adds to your college experience but doesn’t detract from your college experience. We could run the whole thing with 12 people. But this way allows for flexibility in scheduling. You can be a successful college student and have a job. What we don’t want it to become is the reason people fail to graduate. It’s important, too, that when people come in, they see themselves in the employees. They see people who are in their classes. They see people who live in their neighborhood. They see friends.
Does Cougar Cottage hold a special place in your heart? Share your memories of The Coug with Washington State Magazine at firstname.lastname@example.org.