Chester Kroeger has owned Fudpucker’s for over 30 years. He started it out of a snack bar in a nightclub when he started selling a memorable t-shirt, and has grown the company to a nationally-known restaurant brand with locations in Destin, FL and Ft. Walton Beach, FL. and over 500 employees. Here’s how he did it, and why he thinks having a “hook” to draw people in is a must in the restaurant business.
Merchandise has been a big hit for you, right?
“Yes, it’s truly the thing that vaulted Fudpucker’s from being that snack bar in the back of a local nightclub to what it is today.
“It all started when I was a snack bar cook at a bar in Destin. I had four things on the menu: a ‘Fudburger’; a ‘Fishpucker’; a ‘Chickenpucker’; and a ‘Fuddog.’ Those were the core menu items, because that’s what people wanted to eat when they were out drinking.
“One night, one of the customers was had consumed quite a few liquor drinks. He placed his order, and as he was kind of leaning there on the bar, he said, “Why don’t you do a t-shirt? With a name like Fudpucker, you’d make a million dollars.” He combined two of the items into a new word, and it gelled. It was almost instantaneous. It was another one of those moments that you have to seize. We made these shirts, and put them up for sale, and they sold very quickly. Almost immediately. We started selling four, five, six, eight a night from the snack bar. We ripped through hundreds and hundreds of shirts. It was very successful. When you think about it being in just the one location, and the word started getting out – people started coming just to buy the shirt. That was the beginning of Fudpucker’s.”
Tell me about getting started. What worked for you?
“We opened Fudpucker’s in 1983, and it was an immediate success. I had absolutely no formal restaurant training whatsoever. I was again just going by my gut, and my ability to cook, which was decent. The success of that place, in my opinion, was due to the t-shirts. They are the thing that carried it. I think that’s because in this day and age, you almost have to have a hook. The hook can be anything, but it has to increase your sales. There has to be a reason for people to come to see you. If you don’t have that, then why would they choose you over another place?”
So “hooks” can be a great business driver?
“Yes. In the Destin store, we built what we call a trading company, which not only sells t-shirts, but also other Fudpucker branded material. Hats. Cups. Glasses. Magnets. You name it. Then we took it a step further, and we made it an actual gift shop. It’s a real shopping experience, and that has been one of the things that I would consider as our hook.”
You also have alligators as a hook?
“Yes. A few years after we built the gift shop, we were trying to generate more business during the day. Like most beach locations, people tend to go to the beach during the day hours. As such, your lunch business is not as strong as your dinner, and we were trying to figure out a way to get the day business. Man, we tried everything. We threw a lot of time and passion into trying to come up with something that would work.
“So we ended up creating an exhibit we call Alligator Beach, which houses live gators. Amazingly enough, over the next year, our sales during the day quadrupled. Largely because we became a location for people to take their families, and not just look at alligators, but get educated about them, feed them and hold one and have a picture taken.”
What else draws customers to Fudpucker’s?
“The concept of a really stunning drink can be a hook. We have a Voodoo Magic, and a Fudpucker Punch, and a Big Blue Margarita. The Big Blue Margarita is a 40-ounce margarita served in a martini-type glass. When it goes through the crowd, people go, ‘Oh my God. I have to have one of those. What is that?’ When you serve it, the whole table gets up and sticks a straw in it and all drink it at the same time, and it creates an event.
“It’s the same thing with fajitas. I mean, think about it. Why would you buy low grade meat, sliced thin? Well, it’s the sizzle. Look, there’s nothing wrong with fajitas. I love them. But the reason to buy them is the sizzle. It’s the plate they come out on. It’s steaming and sizzling and you can hear it coming. It grabs people’s attention. ‘Oh my God, I want one of those!’
“Same thing with putting food out on the table. When you come here for a hamburger, you get a hamburger. I mean, it’s more than a mouthful. And we do that with everything. We do that with every item that’s on our menu. We try to make it bigger than life. And it works.”
What a cool story. From a snack bar manager to being an owner of a very well-known restaurant with two locations and thirty years of success. Chester, you are in inspiration, and it seems you’re clearly onto something with this concept of having a “hook”!