SPRING HILL — Keith Krueger admits he doesn't think much of defeat. An avid sports fan, he collects autographed photos of champion football, basketball and baseball players.
So when Krueger decided recently to shutter Duke's American Grill and Sports Brewery, the family-style restaurant he has operated on U.S. 19 for nearly two years, it was like a bitter farewell to a long losing season.
Business was slack, Krueger said, and he wasn't happy about the 300-seat establishment's growing reputation for inconsistency in its service and food. It was time to retool the operation.
"It hurt having to do it, but there wasn't any other choice in my opinion," Krueger said. "We were doing okay, but not good enough. And that's not what I want my restaurant to be known for."
Krueger said he didn't know how long Duke's would remain on hiatus, but he indicated it probably wouldn't reopen for "at least for a few months."
He admitted the mistakes were mostly his. The owner of 15 Papa John's pizza stores in South Florida, he was a partner in the Longshotz sports bar that took over the former home of St. Sebastiaan Belgian Microbrewery in 2009. When Longshotz closed, it was rechristened Duke's. An expanded menu included home-style fare such as pot roast, meat loaf and pasta dishes.
Located on U.S. 19's "restaurant row" near chains such as Hooters, Cracker Barrel, Chili's and Outback Steakhouse, Duke's faced stiff competition for customers. Although 90 percent of his customers said they enjoyed their dining experience, Krueger said that many stayed away due to the poor reputation of its previous establishments.
Despite menu changes and an overhaul of the kitchen and serving staff, customers complained of slow service and drab-tasting food. Rather than muddle through the slow summer season, Krueger said he decided to close and reassess his options.
"I want to take the time and listen to what people have to say," he said. "When we come back, I want it to be known as the best in Hernando County."
Krueger said he has a three-year lease on the facility, which includes a full-capacity microbrewery. The new operation, he said, will focus more on the brewing operation, and food might be served only during evening hours.
"I'm not through by any means," Krueger said. "I know there is an audience for what we do. We need to find them and keep finding them. And once we have them, we need to do everything possible to keep them coming back."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]