Independent Restaurant Owner Interview – Chester Kroeger at Fudpucker’s in Destin FL

Here is a transcript of Wil’s conversation with Chester Kroeger, owner at Fudpucker’s (2 locations) in Destin FL. This is fantastic insight into the mind of a very successful restaurateur…

[WIL BRAWLEY:] All right. Good afternoon. It’s Wil with Schedulefly and this is the next in our series of conversations with restaurant owners about owning restaurants. And I am really stoked this afternoon to be talking to Chester Kroeger of Fudpucker’s down in Destin and Fort Walton Beach in the Panhandle of Florida. They’ve got two locations. This place is fun, it’s unique. It says on their website this is not just a restaurant, it’s not just a bar. It is flat out a one of a kind experience and you’ll hear that from talking to Chester today. So this is cool. Chester, thanks for doing this and why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us a little about you and how you got Fudpucker’s started 25 years ago?

[CHESTER KROEGER:] No problem, Wil. Thank you for the opportunity. There’s really not a whole lot to tell about me personally. I’ve had a pretty darn interesting life. We don’t honestly have time to get into all the crazy things that I’ve done. So I’ll focus a little more on the restaurant business. And the way that Fudpucker’s came about was, I got finished with college, ran out of money like so many other people. Was too proud to call my mom and dad and wound up working doing something completely outside of my field. But I had a real passion for entertainment and frankly for food. And I worked at a nightclub kind of part time. That eventually turned into the guy that owned the place giving me an opportunity to run the snack bar and that’s where it all started. The snack bar was fine. It was making decent money and then a lady came up and said, hey man with a name like Fudpucker’s you really need to do a t-shirt. And the t-shirts are the thing that vaulted Fudpucker’s into the limelight so to speak. It became a very very very popular place and today we’ve got two locations. The larger of the two is about 36,000 square feet here in Destin, Florida. And we do everything from basic appetizers, America style food to some really creative stuff that we do in the kitchen. A lot of seafood. And of course we still sell a gazillion tee shirts and have late night entertainment and teen night which is one of the biggest things that we do here lately it seems like. That’s where the money is and teens just really enjoy Fudpucker’s. We do so many things. We’ve got gators too. I mean that’s another little thing that we do on the side, sort of brings people in, makes it kind of a fun place to be. And then of course I’m sure Deede has told you all about the Crazy Mother Puckers hot sauce line that we developed a few years ago. And if she hasn’t talked to you about that you need to talk to her separately because she is blushing.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] That’s great. I think she has mentioned that. I think she has when we first talked. You guys are doing a lot of cool stuff. You mentioned the word passion for entertainment and food. And then I read in your bio that Deede sent me that you became a gourmet cook through trial and error. No real culinary training. One thing that caught my attention that I wrote down is you said the big thing is desire. So when I hear words like desire and passion, it sets off these emotions that seem to be from my conversations so far from other owners so critical to the success of a restaurant. Am I hitting on something? Could you talk more about that and tell me what are some of your secret sauces? How have you guys been so successful for so long?

[CHESTER KROEGER:] Well my dad always told me that I had to love what I did in life. And I honestly believe that that’s true in anything whether you choose to be a cook or whether you choose to be a fireman or a policeman or a solider, you name it. If you don’t love what you do, what’s the point? It’s not all about money, that’s for certain. Now the restaurant business, most people that think about it, they think of a glamour job. Going in and getting to eat whatever you want. Having lots of free time and lots of fun people around you. Well the reality is that it’s not always like that. There’s a grueling side to this business. And you have to love it, truly love it, in order to stick with it and make it successful. There are obviously exceptions to that. There’s an awful lot of franchises that are geared around putting dollars in the bank with minimal effort on the part of owners, but I tell you if you work day to day in a restaurant like we do, you have to love it. As far as sauces and things of that nature are concerned, probably the biggest successful one that we have is called Sensual Sauce. It’s a very simple recipe. I can’t give you the exact recipe because you know, I’d have to kill you. But it’s a very simple recipe of Creole mustard, mayonnaise and honey. And it has been probably the one thing that sets our food aside at least as far as our sandwiches from day one. Very very very very tasty sauce. We also do a thing with all of our meats that we grill. And that is a basting sauce that’s made with soy sauce, Worcestershire, honey, garlic and a little bit of salt and white pepper. It’s again, it’s kind of a day old seasoning in a sense. That alone sets off the meat product so that it jumps out. Those are two sauces that I literally developed in a kitchen through trial and error as you were mentioning in the interview. I just kept putting things together trying to make something taste good. First time I ever used the Sensual Sauce, I used it with crawfish and shrimp that we were doing for a family event and it just went from there. And of course there’s a gazillion more. We do all of our own sauces. Everything we do here is homemade with the exception of maybe three of our appetizers.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] And you got a really extensive menu. I think I saw that you have over 70 items. Your website says it kind of alludes to this. It’s not just a restaurant, it’s not just a bar, it’s not just a tourist place, it’s a one of a kind experience. And a lot of that has to do with you guys just do so many different things. You touched on that a little bit at the top of the call. What else, Chester? What makes it work? You’ve got all this passion and you got this desire, but you’ve got several hundred staff across your two locations. How do you translate that to all of the folks that work with you and for you and get them to have that same level of passion and desire to make Fudpucker’s fun and successful and a one of a kind experience for your guests?

[CHESTER KROEGER:] That’s probably the most difficult part of the job. I don’t know that there’s any real way to say that there’s a formula. I will tell you that if you treat your people with respect and you go out of your way to provide the absolute best possible training, you show compassion, and you constantly stay on top of things. It’s probably the best way I can describe it. There are some employees here who’ve been with us for gosh, almost 25, 28 years. That’s pretty remarkable in this business. In fact, one of my partners Tim Edwards started with me back in 1985. He worked his way up from basically serving beer for free. Well, I say for free. He was a pretty big guy and was able to drink an awful lot of beer because that’s how I paid him. To being a major owner in this company. And like I said, it’s empathy, it’s compassion, it’s treating people with respect. It’s always listening. Sometimes when you start making a little bit more money and you have a little bit of success, your ears tend to close and you start to think that you have all the answers. You don’t. I can tell you that the people that are on the line, the people that are greeting the customer, the people that are in the back office looking at the reviews as they come in as Deede does here at Fuds and sees what people are saying on Trip Advisor and you name it. Now those are the folks that have to have your ear. Without it you’re dead in the water.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] Yeah you mentioned several words that I keep hearing or words that are a similar. A lot of it has to do with, they’re emotional words. So in other words you talk about treating people with respect, you talk about compassion, empathy, listening. These seem to be common threads. I’m trying to find these common threads with folks like yourself. So everybody has different formulas. And they do things many different ways to make successful restaurants but I tend to hear that a lot. I feel like people who own independent restaurants like you, they have love, they have passion, they care about the people that work for them genuinely. They want the best for them. They look at it as a family. Is that fair? Is that a pretty common thread with other owners that you know?

[CHESTER KROEGER:] Oh it is definitely the case. Regardless of how big you get, I mean we do have close to 500 employees but we are a family. You know, when times are tough for employees, we go out of our way to help them. Whether it’s with a loan to buy that car that helps them get to work or whatever. You just do what you need to do within reason. I mean you have to be careful. You can’t be taken advantage of. But more often than not we err on the side of doing what’s right for the employee. Doesn’t always work out but that’s kind of what you have to do.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] Yeah. You’re taken a really big picture perspective on things and you’re running a marathon, not a sprint down there. That’s why you’ve been doing it 25 years really well. That’s really cool. Tell me about your employees? What’s it like to work there? I imagine everybody has a lot of fun but they also work hard and they really love your guests.

[CHESTER KROEGER:] Well you know, it’s changed over the years. We’ve gone through some general management changes. And the personality of your place is often reflective of the person who’s kind of got the reins in their hand. The last couple of years we’ve been fortunate enough to have someone who has been in the restaurant business for 30 odd years. One of the people who was instrumental in helping Fudpucker’s get started back in the early days when we were a snack bar inside of a nightclub. And Peter has got, you talk about love and compassion and just passion for the business. This guy lives it, eats it, breathes it, sleeps it, you name it. It’s all about the restaurant business. And he’s fantastic. He’s a born leader and he shows people through his actions what’s expected of them. And he does not ever accept mediocrity. That’s the kind of manager you have to have. That’s honestly the kind of leader that you have to have. The kind of person that we strive to be. In a restaurant, people are of course concerned about the food and the drinks and how they look and all of that. But I tell you, you make one mistake and there’s maybe a smudge on a table or a mirror that’ s not clean or there’s something on the floor that shouldn’t be there. Or god help you, if there’s any kind of a problem with a product that comes out of the kitchen. You’re going to suffer because of it. So you have to keep a very very close rein on everything. You have to watch it. And that’s I think what a good manager, a guy like Peter will do for you. And he’s the kind of person that I guess people look up to and they don’t want to disappoint. So we’ve had that for years. We’ve had it in our previous GM and we have it again in this gentleman that’s working with us today.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] Would I be right to assume that he leads by example and not by decree if you will? He’s doing all the things he’s asking people to do versus just telling them what to do?

[CHESTER KROEGER:] Oh absolutely, it’s critical Absolutely it’s critical. People don’t respect you when you just say do this and do that. To give you a perfect example, our business is extremely seasonal. When I was a kid my dad always told me says, take your car and park in the front part of the hotel so people can see that there’s cars in the parking lot. Well we took that to another level here at Fudpucker’s. All of our staff here at the back office, when we have slow periods of the year which is usually during the winter season, we park our cars in the front part of the parking lot. Well if we didn’t do that, if we were demanding that our employees did it, how would that look? We’re not willing to walk that extra 50 or 100 feet to get to our place of work and yet we’re forcing them to do it? It doesn’t fly. So it is leading by example.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] Absolutely. Yeah I love that. So tell me what’s on your mind these days? Being where you guys are and I talked to Deede a little bit about this. I know you’re keeping your eye on the oil spill. What kinds of stuff are you thinking about? What kinds of trends do you see that you think are positive or negative? Just kind of general stuff that either keeps you up at night or stuff that you’re excited about?

[CHESTER KROEGER:] Well I’m not sure if you’re going to be able to publish all this stuff.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] Bring it on.

[CHESTER KROEGER:] I tend to be more of an optimist than anything else. I think in this business you almost have to be. You also have to take into consideration the reality that surrounds you. We were poised this year to have a banner year. The best management team. The best staff that we’ve ever had. And out of the clear blue in the middle of April comes a disaster. Whether the beaches here in Destin get hit by oil or not, a lot of damage has already been done because the national news media jumps on the bandwagon and sensationalizes things to the point where it doesn’t matter if there’s oil on the beach or not. People think there is and they’re worried about it. They’re canceling those reservations or trying to. So what’s on my mind? The immediate future is certainly on my mind front and foremost because without a good year all of us, it’s kind of like losing your job. Without having a good solid job you can’t go forward to the degree that you want to. Not that you can’t, but just maybe in a different way. So we’re focused very very heavily on the spill. We’re actually getting ready to send out an email blitz to hundreds of thousands of customers who’ve been our loyal followers ever since we opened and we’ve maintained contact with them through email. We’re going to send out a blitz and let them know that the beaches are fine here. In fact the oil is 60 miles further to the west today than it was two days ago. So you know, that’s one thing. Another thing that is of course of maybe more importance is the direction I see us taking in this country. And I feel like it’s something that is very detrimental to any small business and anyone who believes that small government is better than big government. The only sector of our economy that grew last quarter was the governmental sector. That’s a pretty sad state of affairs. I don’t know that it will get any better in the immediate future. It might. I certainly hope it will. And then of course you take a look at the world. And the world is in an economy downturn. All of those things affect everybody whether you’re in the restaurant business or whether you’re driving a trunk in Minneapolis or doing whatever. So there’s some sincere concern.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] Yeah. The cool thing thing I think about Fudpucker’s is that you’ve got a fun place. You have a great price point and you just have something for everybody. So people, even when the economy’s tough they want to go sometimes and just have some fun and enjoy themselves. And so you’ve got a really well established brand down there and that’s probably real favorable. And you’ve also got. I’ve been to Destin. You’ve got beautiful beaches. I can account for that. Beautiful white sand. In fact I’ve been to Fudpucker’s back in college and I remember it too because you got a cool brand and a neat place. I went 15 years ago when I was in school and I remember going to Fudpucker’s. So if you’re listening to this and you’re thinking about going somewhere to Florida, go to Destin and go to Fudpucker’s. You can go have fun and don’t worry about the oil because you’re right.

[CHESTER KROEGER:] And it may never come. We just don’t know. And I promise not to talk politics to anybody that comes to Fudpucker’s.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] That’s funny. I hear you. Hey let me ask you this just out of curiosity, how does that impact and maybe you don’t know yet, do you have your eye on food costs? You have a lot of seafood, I’m sure. What does that do to your food costs?

[CHESTER KROEGER:] Right now we have not seen an affect. We get a large portion of our seafood from outside of the area. We’re constantly searching for new product. Things that provide the price point that we’re trying to put on the table. And right now although we do get some of our seafood from the Gulf Coast, a great deal of it comes from overseas. So that has not really been an issue yet. I think that right now if I was to be a betting man, I would say that our numbers from a standpoint of costing and product is not going to be affected by this and I’m hoping I’m right.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] Right. Cool. Good. Let me just thank you for doing this, Chester. This is absolutely unbelievably fantastic material. I mean I just really love talking to you. I know everybody that listens to this is going to get a ton out of it. And congratulations on just doing a great job down there and having a neat place and a success story and one that I know will continue for many years to come as long as you’re at it. So thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this.

[CHESTER KROEGER:] Well you’re very welcome and next time you get down this way please do stop in. We’d love to host you for a few hours and get some special insight into Schedulefly.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] Awesome. Yeah. Thank you very much. Deede, thank you for getting this coordinated and I’ll let y’all run but we appreciate your business and appreciate your time very much too.