Kraken’s owner relishes customer service and managerial freedom

Kraken owner, Klugh, greets customers
Aaron Klugh wants his Kraken Gastropub to be known for its customer service and fine dining as well as for its menu and draft beers. The Rosewood restaurant is not the only gastropub in Columbia, but Klugh tries to differentiate his by using his customer-service experience as a sales manager.

By Haley Bourne
Nov. 13, 2013

Aaron Klugh named his restaurant after a mythical giant squid. If you think the reference is a bit obscure, so is the Kraken Gastropub.

First you’ll have to find the small sign near the top of a gray commercial building along Rosewood Drive. Ignore the cigar store at the front. Go down the hill, under the deck, and step into the Kraken, where Klugh, just a year into the restaurant business, says he will do whatever it takes to earn repeat customers.

Gastropubs meld the idea of a British pub, not normally known for its grub, with high-end food, like the lobster grilled cheese Klugh dishes out for $14. The Kraken is not the only British pub in Columbia, nor the only gastropub. Urbanspoon lists at least five others, including the British Bulldog Pub in Harbison, where the menu has traditional English favorites like bangers and mash, cottage pie and Scotch egg.

Kraken owner, Aaron Klugh, works behind the bar
Kraken owner Aaron Klugh, in the right background, helps his bartender and servers by pouring beers. If nights become busy, Klugh takes orders, serves food and works behind the bar.

But the Kraken is different because its menu is Southern infused with items like pork belly, says Klugh, 45, who left a sales manager job at Best Buy to start his restaurant in November 2012.

“By doing something nobody else is doing, I can eliminate competition,” Klugh said.

So far, he’s beating the odds. New restaurants have just a 50-50 chance of making it through their first year, said Robin DiPietro, director of USC’s International Institute for Foodservice Research and Education.

She said that to be successful Klugh must maintain the things that set the Kraken apart – the specialized menu that focuses on local ingredients and the pub’s selection of 30 craft beers, most of which Klugh says are from the Carolinas and Georgia.

After the first year, a restaurant has an 80 percent chance of remaining successful, DiPietro said.

Chef David Marlow refocused the Kraken’s menu when he took over the kitchen in July with things such as lamb shank and a duck confit spring roll. Changing chefs in the middle of the year was a “matter of the old chef not being able to work the schedule,” Klugh said.

Employees at City Roots Farm and Yandle’s Roadside Market say Marlow is a frequent shopper, picking up things like organic microgreens, eggplant and peppers for lasagna, cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes, apples and cheese. City Roots’ retail manager, Courtney Brooks, said she is seeing a lot more restaurants shopping locally.

Local food is a strong trend among new restaurants, DiPietro said. Customers see it as healthier and are willing to pay more, she said.

But if you’re Klugh, why trade in a corporate job for the risk of the restaurant business?

“I finally hit the wall. I got tired of working for other people and wanted to go into business for myself,” he said.

For Klugh, opening the Kraken was a long time coming, but he says that when the time came it was like “lightning in a bottle.”

Klugh is staking his success as much on his 10 years in customer service as on his menu. Klugh said he opened the Kraken because he was tired of the corporate environment and the red tape and bureaucracy needed to make changes.

“Here I have the luxury of being able to, if something doesn’t work, stop doing it and start doing something else,” he said.

For instance, food at first was slow coming out of the kitchen. The problem was too many fried items, and “there’s only so fast you can make a fryer fry,” Klugh said.

When Marlow came aboard, the menu shifted to more sophisticated sauteed items that cook faster, Klugh said.

The Kraken does much of its publicity on social media. That means it depends on word of mouth and that customers must have a reason to suggest the restaurant, DiPietro said.

The Kraken’s Urbanspoon reviews are generally favorable, but at least four complain about food preparation and customer service. Klugh says he doesn’t see them so much as criticism as feedback to be addressed.

Listen to Klugh explain why he named his restaurant after a mythical sea creature.
Hear Klugh explain why he went into the industry.
Listen to the entire interview with Klugh (approximately 12 minutes).

“I’m grateful for anybody who wants to give constructive feedback,” he said. “If there’s something we can identify in any of that criticism, we fix it immediately. We change it, and we make it better.”

Given the Kraken’s hard-to-find location, Klugh made a good choice in offering an unusual menu and atmosphere, said John Durst, director of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.

But finances also play a large role in whether a restaurant can survive, Durst said.

Klugh says he invested his own money into the Kraken, though he won’t say how much, and didn’t take out bank loans or depend on a partner.

Meg Linder, who owns the Publick House, another “gastropub” on Urbanspoon, said Rosewood needed the Kraken. Rosewood has sports bars, wing joints, and pizza parlors, but the Kraken is appropriate for all ages as a local gathering place whether dining alone or with a large group, she said.

Linder, whose Devine Street bar and restaurant is about a mile and a half from Klugh’s, said she doesn’t see the Kraken as competition but more as a member of the restaurant community.

Klugh said Linder is a mentor. Linder said such comaraderie among restaurant owners can help prevent failures.


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