The History of Fudpucker’s in Destin Told by Founding Owners Chester and Tim
Chester Kroeger, a.k.a. Father Fud, is the founding owner of what has become a Destin family fun hot spot in Fudpucker’s. We had the pleasure of speaking with Chester and his longtime friend/business partner Tim Edwards (a.k.a. Captain Fud) at Fudpucker’s in Destin this past fall. They have been business partners since 1985 which is why Chester jokingly refers to Tim as his ‘soulmate’.
Chester and Tim were extremely gracious hosts and they shared the story of how Fudpucker’s came to be a reality on Okaloosa Island and in Destin, FL. They are the kind of guys you’d like to have a few beers with and shoot the breeze. After the interview, we were given a full tour of Fudpucker’s which is so much more than just another Destin restaurant…
Interview with Chester and Tim owners of Fudpucker’s Destin and Okaloosa Island
30A Prime: Thanks for meeting with us today guys. Chester, please tell us about what you did for a living before starting Fudpucker’s in 1983.
Chester: I was originally a developer, a DJ and a student before founding Fudpucker’s in 1983. I sort of fell into Fudpucker’s and it was an interesting thing as I was working at a nightclub as a DJ in another location. I quit that scene and came back here to Destin to say hello to some friends. The “Snack Bar” just happened to be available and the owner of the business asked me to take it over. Fudpucker’s came from that weird circumstance. It was just one of those happenstance moments in life and I recognized it, I liked it, I loved the business, loved the interaction with people and it grew from basically and 8 x 10 shack to what it is today.
30A Prime: How did you come up with the name Fudpucker’s?
Chester: It was 1982 and CB Radios were a big thing at the time. Truck drivers would use the CB Radio to refer to certain restaurants as ‘choke and puke’. So my first thought, I was going to call it ‘Chowder Chets Choke and Puke”. That’s what Fudpucker’s was going to be called originally.
Needless to say, that name didn’t go over well with people I told so it was back to the drawing board. I was determined to come up with a name that had meaning. Well, the meaning came from the name of a fish caught here in Destin called the Fudpucker a.k.a grey triggerfish. Deckhands still to this day refer to that fish as the fudpucker or the fud. I can’t tell you the circumstances of the naming of the business but when it was mentioned the first time, I was serious and everyone else in the room was laughing. So there was an immediate connection with the name, it was obviously very funny, it has a sexual connotation and it has the appeal of being something that is extremely local because nowhere else in the world is a triggerfish called a fudpucker. So for me, that was the perfect name and the rest is history.
Tim: In fact, we actually had to recite that story several times under deposition because we were sued by a company called Fuddruckers. They claimed that we had copied their name which had nothing to do with the concept of our name, nothing. We subsequently had a court rule in our favor to that effect.
30A Prime: Please tell us about the original Fudpucker’s off of Old Highway 98 Gulf front in Destin and how it came to be.
Chester: I was dating a girl who happened to have a friend who was dating a developer. The developer had a building on the south side of old 98 in Destin where Pompano Joe’s is today that had come available and they asked if I wanted to take it. My response was… I’m interested but for how much money?
They said I could have it for $900 per month. My response was… Is that just for the busy season? They said, yes that works for us and so I took it.
I basically paid $3,600 a year for a beachfront location in Destin back in the early 1980’s. Fudpucker’s was at that location for 3 full years. So that is how Fudpucker’s was originally started and we’ve just grown like crazy ever since.
They eventually kicked Fudpucker’s off the property because they thought we were a blight on the neighborhood. They were trying to develop condos across the street and they felt like the activities going on at Fudpucker’s… The food and the drinking and the debauchery and all that good stuff were anti-development and that it hurt their ability to sell condos.
So they pushed me out of the property and I eventually wound up working with Tim to secure a location on Okaloosa Island which we kept until just 5 years ago and then moved to another location on the island. 3 years after the Okaloosa Island location opened, we decided that we had so much business we need to open a satellite operation in Destin.
30A Prime: Please talk about the origins of your current Fudpucker’s Destin store.
Tim: Yes, so this Fudpucker’s Destin was originally intended to be an annex. It was never intended to be the primary Fudpucker’s. Where we’re sitting right here was much smaller scale in our minds and it kind of just organically grew into what Fudpucker’s Destin is today.
Chester: Today, Fudpucker’s Destin is the larger of the two stores. You know, despite the fact that we have an awful lot of great things going on at Fudpucker’s Okaloosa Island, this Destin store is the bread and butter winner and has been pretty much ever since we opened it back in the late 1980s.
Tim: We opened this Fudpucker’s Destin location on Memorial Day 1989. As a rule of thumb, you never want to open a restaurant on Memorial Day weekend because that’s the busiest weekend of the entire year, at least it was for us in Destin back then. However, much to our delight we had an amazing opening as we had people lined up down our ramp and we stayed busy all summer long.
Going back to what we said earlier, Fudpucker’s Destin was never intended to be a big business, as our main operation was over on Okaloosa Island and this was just going to be an annex. We could never have imagined the amount of business, the amount of traffic Fudpucker’s Destin would generate.
When this Fudpucker’s location in Destin opened in 1989 it was the only building in the area. Fudpucker’s Destin opened right after the new Highway 98 Emerald Coast Parkway was completed. We were one of the very first inhabitants and part of the reason we decided to open here is that we were mentored by the father of one of our waitresses. She said… “You really need to be out there in Destin”.
Her father kind of sold us on this location because he happened to also be the one that convinced a guy named Sam Walton to open Walmart just down the street from us. We figured if Sam Walton could open on this road, we probably could do OK. This was back before the Mid-Bay Bridge was built, this was back before Destin Commons was in place, this was back before there was any development or activity at all to the east of us.
Chester: The only structure that was here at the time, 1989, was Abbot Realty and that was it.
Tim: Most people considered the location that Fudpucker’s in Destin occupies as the boondocks because it was so far off the beaten path back in the late 1980’s early 1990’s. That is a remarkable concept when you consider how developed every inch of land off of Hwy 98 in Destin is present day.
We actually purchased this property from Mattie Kelly who is one of the matriarchs of Destin. We had the privilege of getting to know her and thankfully she was willing to sell us this property and gave us the opportunity to make Fudpucker’s in Destin what it is today. Since we’ve been here it’s been just an amazing ride.
It’s almost magical because allot of people want to give us credit for being brilliant but the fact of the matter is we didn’t know what we were doing when we opened. Fudpucker’s Destin was just supposed to be an annex to cover the overflow from our Okaloosa Island location. As it turned out, Fudpucker’s Destin ended up being something that goes well beyond anything we ever anticipated.
30A Prime: How has Fudpucker’s business model evolved over the years?
Tim: The bar business on Okaloosa Island and in Destin was amazing when we first started out. We sold a lot of beer and we actually started as a beer and wine only place that also served some food. Later on we added a full liquor bar. Well, Fudpucker’s has transitioned from that to now it’s a family destination. I guess if you’re around long enough, you eventually get to try a little of everything.
It was in 1989 when we opened this Destin location and we operated for 10 years mainly focusing on the bar business. We were a destination that had some of the best live music and the best bands in the area played at Fudpucker’s. To this day we still have great associations with some of the musicians that have gone on to bigger and better things.
We’ve kind of moved away from that business model and so has the market in all fairness. The truth is that the bar business had its day and it’s just not there anymore. The fact is that most people that visit this area are families and with that there are children.
Our focus has been on entertaining the families that come in here because that’s what we are first and foremost… Fudpucker’s is an entertainment company. Yes, we serve food, but we’re entertaining people. Fudpucker’s is an experience.
We don’t want people to come in here just to fill their bellies, we want them to full-fill their experience and say… “I went to Destin and I went to this place called Fudpucker’s and I did this thing”…
And ‘this thing’ could be anything from having an outrageous meal to feeding an alligator to writing on the walls to our trading company retail store… So creating an entertaining experience that people go home and tell their friends about is the focus of Fudpucker’s Destin.
30A Prime: When did you add alligators to the mix here at Fudpucker’s in Destin?
Tim: The whole alligator thing was almost an accident. I think it was 2001 when we went to the Orlando Food Show which is an annual event put on by the restaurant association for all the vendors and restauranteurs in the state of Florida.
When it comes to how this business works, Chester and I each have defined roles and we stay in our lanes so to speak. Chester is the guy that takes care of the menu, makes sure that the food is good and so on. I’m the guy that’s involved with the t-shirts and marketing and alligators and all the stuff other than the food.
So we were at the Orlando food show and Chester was focused on the food vendors while I was walking around trying to find something different for our retail store. At the same time, when we built this building in Destin, we had a pond out front that really had no purpose other than a stormwater retention pond. It was a neat pond in that you had to walk over it to get into the building but it wasn’t anything beyond that.
I found this guy at the Orlando food show that had an exhibit with these fiberglass animals… Sailfish, turtles, and alligators.
I looked at his exhibit and thought… “Wouldn’t it be cool if I got a fiberglass alligator and we floated it in the pond”?
So I went up and talked to the guy and he was a little guarded because he didn’t really know what I was trying to do. He told me that he would come up to Destin and look at our pond and see if maybe he could find a fiberglass alligator that he could put out there. Little did I know at the time that his main business was setting up alligator attractions all over the state of Florida.
The reason he didn’t share that with me was that he wasn’t at the Orlando food show to sell his alligator attractions, he was there to sell the fiberglass animals for restaurant theming. Long story short, the guy drove up to Destin and stared at our pond for about an hour before finally saying…
“You know this could really work”.
He came in and told us about his live alligator exhibits business. So we said, sure why not, let’s do it. Up to that point we had not thought about putting live alligators in the pond but he sold us on it.
There were certain things that the State of Florida required in order for us to have live alligators in our possession. We complied with all the licensing requirements set forth by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Shortly after, our guy brought 80 live alligators to Fudpucker’s Destin.
Our very first alligator handler was Chester’s 15-year-old son who was still in high school at the time. The kid was totally fearless and he produced the shows that we offer to this day. He takes after his father in many ways except he’s much better looking. His name is Brant Kroeger and he basically opened Gator Beach for us here at Fudpucker’s in Destin.
After the first year we realized, this was going to be big. Slowly over the years, we’ve expanded our live alligator exhibit. Every year we’ve added little elements to it such as expanding the deck, our reptile museum, an albino alligator and much more. The whole alligator element wasn’t part of what Fudpucker’s was when we started. Now when people mention Fudpucker’s in Destin, alligators are typically one of their first associating thoughts.
Chester: When I caught wind of what was going on with the alligators, I didn’t think it was a good idea because of liability issues. Normally it would be Tim that would be cautioning me on the liability issues. I remember thinking at the time, how is this going to work having live alligators at Fudpucker’s?
The idea really gelled for me when Gerald said one thing. He said… “People come to Florida for 3 things”.
The first you would think is the beach but it wasn’t at that time. The number one thing people came to Florida for back then was to visit Disney World. The second thing people came to see in Florida back then was alligators and the beach was third.
I was floored because when you think about it, you know this is a beach community. Everybody comes to Destin to go to the beach and that was partially true. But, the fact that alligators were in the top 3 reasons why people visited Florida made the decision to bring them to Fudpucker’s in Destin a no-brainer.
The addition of the alligators elevated Fudpucker’s Destin to a different level. They really brought our daytime business up significantly. You know when you think about going out to eat in a destination that’s on the water, most people want to go have lunch on the harbor or they want to go have lunch at the beach. We didn’t have that oceanfront or bayfront dining option so our nighttime business was huge but we didn’t have that really strong daytime business.
Well, the alligators over the years have become such an integral part of our thing here at Fudpucker’s that now our day business is almost equal to our night business so it’s very strong. We’ve been very blessed in that regard. It’s been truly amazing how Fudpucker’s in Destin has grown over the years.
You can learn more about Fudpuckers in Destin by visiting their website here… Fudpucker.com