Slowly, and Very NaturallyAug 21, 2023 04:05PM ● By Jesse Kuhnle
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
It took a long time. Sorting, sifting, finding the right piece. Heat. Hammer. Bend. Heat. Hammer. Bend. Eventually, it was done. Handlebend mug #001. It wasn’t pretty, but Michael Stepp was proud of the handmade copper mug he’d fashioned from scrap copper in his father’s commercial refrigeration workshop. Even if he didn’t know it at the time, Stepp had forged the first of many handmade copper mugs that would change the course of his life, as well as that of longtime friend Matt Dennis.
The creation of Dennis & Stepp Copper Co. was much like the creation of that first copper mug. As Stepp puts it, things happened “very slowly, but very naturally.” While roommates and business majors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Stepp and Dennis discovered and developed an affinity for the Moscow Mule, a vodka-based cocktail traditionally served in a chilled copper mug, which enhances the drink’s distinct flavors. To better enjoy and entertain company, the pair searched the internet and ordered a set of “copper” mugs for themselves. Once the mugs arrived, the poor quality and overpromise of the advertising was immediately apparent.
But out of the disappointment and buyer’s remorse, an inspiration was sparked, leading Stepp to fashion that first mug and share it with Dennis. Dennis was impressed and wanted a mug of his own. The two headed back to the workshop and got busy. As Stepp and Dennis began to make appearances at social gatherings toting their new beverage vessels, the copper mugs quickly became highly sought-after commodities.
Slowly, the two refined the process and began crafting mugs as wedding gifts for friends. The handcrafted items became a unifying force, signaling a special bond between friends.
“Everybody who had these mugs were very, very proud of them,” Stepp said. “Looking back, that’s what we really appreciated. How proud everyone was of them. And we watched them host and gather with friends and family, and they’d get these mugs out around the kitchen table or the backyard.”
Stepp and Dennis both graduated from UNL in 2008 with degrees in business, and both were prepared to begin careers in their respective family enterprises—Stepp in commercial refrigeration, and Dennis in grain merchandising. But slowly and very naturally, as the mugs made their way across Nebraska, interest and product demand grew. Even with all the positive feedback, Stepp and Dennis were reluctant to get started.
“We knew if we wanted to do it, we wanted to do it very, very, well,” Stepp said. “We wanted to provide an impressive experience for people.”
Making a copper mug by hand is a time-consuming process. Stepp and Dennis took their time. The pair experimented, problem-solved, and even invented tools to streamline and refine the process and product. Once they reached a certain level of comfort, their copper mug business—branded Handlebend—began as a sidegig housed in the back corner of Stepp’s father’s workshop. “We spent $1,500 on a website, which at the time seemed insane,” Stepp said.
Fast forword six years, and “slowly, but very naturally” has given way to “trying to keep up.” As demand for the mugs began to boom, so did the needs of the Handlebend business.
“Sixteen to 18 months ago, we had a team of three,” Dennis said. “Here we are a little over a year later with a team of eight full-time people plus Michael and I and probably 25 part-time staff running the front of the building.”
Today, the business operates in the Handlebend Building, a historic 14,000-square-foot commercial space right in the center of O’Neill, Nebraska, which Stepp and Dennis purchased and renovated. (The partners first met as fifth-graders in O’Neill nearly three decades ago, so a return to their hometown seemed a natural fit.) The building houses the mug production operation, as well as the Handlebend Tap—which serves beers from Nebraska breweries and, of course, Moscow Mules—and a local coffee shop and florist.
The experience of a Handlebend mug is as distinctive and memorable as the first sip of a Moscow Mule. When ordered, mugs arrive in a wooden crate with Handlebend proudly branded on the front. The mug’s weight makes a strong first impression. The Original stands 5 inches tall and holds 25 ounces. With its large loop handle, it weighs nearly 2 pounds and is equal parts beverage vessel and decoration piece. Each handle is meticulously bent by hand to ensure uniformity and quality. The slightly smaller square-handled mug called The Rambler is 1.5 pounds and holds 23 ounces. Both styles are $225 for a set of two or $425 for a set of four and are available with a regular copper shine or distressed finish. The vast majority of mugs, a variety of other copper beverage receptacles (including custom products), and apparel are sold on their website (handlebend.com), and in the Handlebend Taphouse. They also sell products on Amazon.
As the Handlebend brand continues to grow, diversify, and draw visitors from across the country, the central theme of the business remains the same.
“I think it’s important to recognize the value in unplugging and having a good time for the sake of having a good time,” Stepp said.