Start 'Em Young
Where were you at age 19? Age 21? Perhaps you were in college cranking out term papers and partying on the weekends. Maybe you were making your way through trade school, or maybe full time in the workforce. For locals Ben and Paige Kennard, 19 and 21 represent a huge step forward in their lives – the step into business ownership. Eleven years later and two businesses in, they’re still going strong.
The story behind Gibson County favorites Spud Hut and Klinkers Hometown Bar & Grill
is a story of young entrepreneurs with a dream, a village, and a passion for their community. Both PCHS graduates with deep roots in Princeton, Paige and Ben live by the motto “Bloom where you’re planted” and the result is a hometown success.
A College Boy's Dream
After a short stint at the University of Evansville to study business and finance, Ben took on two jobs with the ultimate goal to work for himself. Inspired by eateries common in larger cities, Ben took his “college boy’s dream” to Pam Slinker, Paige’s mom, and together - with the help of her credit cards, line of credit, and 401K - they pieced together Spud Hut with a yard barn, used kitchen appliances, and heat lamps to keep the pipes from freezing. In 2012 they added Klinkers (formerly Pood’s) to their portfolio, establishing a new hometown hangout with such favorites as hand-battered mozzarella logs, Princeton tacos, and the Klinkers burger.
When many of their friends were enjoying the freedom after graduation and blooming adulthood, both Paige and Ben worked through their 20’s, spending every Thursday through Sunday evening navigating the local food industry. In addition, Paige completed her degree as a physical therapy assistant, taking on full time work to ensure a regular paycheck aside from the restaurants. The couple wed in 2014 and grew their family by two: daughters Addison and Austyn.
Family is a key word for the Kennards. Not only have numerous members of their extended family worked at the two businesses, but it’s clear that the Kennards prioritize creating an environment where employees want to be. Want evidence? In a time when good help is especially hard to find, the majority of current employees have worked for Paige and Ben for at least a year, with manager Heather Nichols celebrating her 10 year anniversary with Klinkers this year. As Ben put it, “Your employees are your most valuable asset,” and while he compares managing 50 employees at two different businesses to a Sudoku puzzle, that appreciation for employees is evident in the work culture the Kennards are creating.
That work culture includes being closed on Sunday evenings and Monday, as well as closing every sixth Sunday and for holiday weekends. Paige and Ben recognize that not only do they need time together, but the employees deserve that time as well. In addition, Ben provides creative license to the kitchen crew to execute new menu ideas, adding to a sense of ownership among the cooks and recognizing them as professionals.
Bumps in the Road
And while this is a story of success, don’t be fooled by how easy the Kennards make it look. Consider the 80 - 100 weekly hours Ben put in for years and admittedly missing the first three years of his girls’ childhood. Or the relationships that suffered because the couple were at a completely different point in their lives in young adulthood compared to their friends. Or the fact that Ben didn’t take a paycheck in the first year of business. Or the challenge of being a mom to two very active girls, working full time outside of the family business, and keeping a marriage healthy.
And let’s not forget the impact of COVID-19 on small businesses everywhere, both during the mandatory shutdown and continuing to today. Fortunately the Kennards were able to pivot with a little creativity, offering carryout options and dinner kits, and ultimately adding a patio over a single weekend when outdoor seating became a requirement to reopen. Ben credits the loyal customer base for keeping the business afloat, and COVID relief dollars have created an avenue for business expansion and employee raises amid a 400% increase in food costs and continued supply chain issues.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Just like the positive work culture, that loyal customer base didn’t happen by accident either. Instead, that is the result of Ben and Paige’s intentionality with investing in the community. As Ben put it, “Ultimately I want Princeton to thrive. I want my kids to stay here. Yes, we’re in it for our family, but we’re in it for our community.” And part of that is recognizing that Spud Hut’s and Klinkers’ success is the result of a village. It’s the result of a mother believing in her daughter’s boyfriend’s crazy dream. Who would have thought it could ever thrive? It’s the result of an extended family stepping in to cook and serve and clean and promote and take care of kids right alongside this young couple. It’s the result of a community choosing to invest their dollars in a local business during a frightening time in our country. And it’s the result of a community that continues to see value in and show appreciation for two Princeton natives who are pouring blood, sweat, and tears into building this community up one small business at a time.
Full Speed Ahead
The Kennards are definitely here to stay with big plans going forward. Paige recently transitioned to PRN work in order to take on the office duties, allowing more time for Ben to spend in the creative work of restaurant ownership. And as Paige says, “Ben is ready to go big on all the things,” with dreams that include expanding both businesses to better serve customers.. In the immediate works, you’ll find them putting the finishing touches on a recent patio remodel and renovating a vintage travel trailer to serve as a mobile bar.
The food at Klinkers and Spud Hut speaks for itself. The real story to this business is Paige and Ben Kennard - an incredible couple who are certainly blooming where they’re planted and bringing the rest of the community along with them. And if you’re just brave enough to want to build a business yourself, take these words from Ben to heart: “Start small. Stay humble. Be prepared to work your butt off.”