By Cali Hlavac
It doesn’t get more local than the story of how Fudpucker’s Beachside Bar and Grill came to be in our tourist town of Destin. The 36-year-old restaurant’s history was shaped by the growth of the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village and became one of its most recognizable landmarks.
Back in 1982, while a DJ and learning the real estate business, Chester Kroeger was offered an opportunity to run a snack bar inside the then Nighttown nightclub. “It was just one of those happenstance moments in life and I recognized it,” said Chester. “I liked it, I loved the business, loved the interaction with people and it grew from basically an 8 x 10 shack to what it is today.”
What he built in the next three and a half decades was far beyond his wildest dreams. While choosing a name, he wanted something recognized locally, that would stand out in people’s minds. He settled on the word “Fudpucker’s,” which was a nickname the local deck hands called the much-despised Trigger Fish. It’s not a phrase commonly used anywhere else in the world, thus keeping its local flare.
He moved the snack shack out of Nighttown and into a beachfront space that is currently the home of Pompano Joe’s in 1983. It was in that location that he teamed up with a friend and part time Fudpucker bartender, Tim Edwards, and the two became unstoppable. “He eventually realized it was cheaper to pay me with equity in the company than to keep paying me in free beer,” Edwards joked.
They were kicked out of the Pompano Joe’s location in 1985 when developers were building condos across the street and felt that Fudpucker’s was “a blight on the community” that would hinder their ability to sell them. It was then that Fudpucker’s moved to its first location on Okaloosa Island, followed three years later by a second location that was, at that time, the far end of Destin. That Destin location “was originally intended to be an annex to handle the overflow from the Island,” Chester told us. “It was never intended to be the primary Fudpucker’s.” It opened on Memorial Day of 1989, right after the new Highway 98/Emerald Coast Parkway was completed and has remained there ever since.
Fudpucker’s was one of the very first buildings that locals referred to as “being out in the boondocks,” since it was so far off the beaten path in the late 1980’s. “We purchased the land from Mattie Kelly, one of the matriarchs of Destin,” Edwards said. “We had the privilege of getting to know her, and, thankfully, she was willing to give us the opportunity to make Fudpucker’s what it is today.”
Adding Gator Beach, the World Famous Alligator Park out front was an idea that was spurred in 2001, almost by accident. Having a big stormwater retention pond out front, Tim came across the idea for alligators at an Orlando food show. After some meetings to discuss the feasibility and state licensing requirements, the first round of 80 alligators were brought to the pond. “Our very first alligator handler was Chester’s 15-year-old son, Brand, who was still in high school at the time,” Edwards said. “He was totally fearless and, amongst other things, produced the gator shows that we offer to this day.” More than just providing entertainment, Fudpucker’s main purpose behind the alligators is education. In addition to seeing a hundred live alligators in the gator pond, local and visiting families can also browse one of the most unique alligator museums in existence, see baby alligators up close, visit “Pearl” (one of only forty albino alligators in the world) and learn from the educational Gator Show happening four times a day in the summer months.
Since its beginnings, Fudpucker’s has grown into a family friendly attraction, a place many consider a tradition to visit during their annual vacations to Destin and one the locals frequent at the slower times of year. Guests from all over the world come to hold an alligator, have a cold drink, enjoy a great meal, dance, buy a World Famous Fudpucker T-Shirt and, basically, have some fun. And if Chester and Tim have any say in it, that will continue to be a tradition for another 30 years.