Arooga's Goes from Single Sports Bar to Restaurant Chain in 5 Years

Arooga's goes from single sports bar to restaurant chain in 5 years

By Sue Gleiter | on July 01, 2012 at 6:42 AM, updated July 02, 2012 at 2:52 PM - The Patriot-News
Diners are eating boneless wings and salads. Others are sipping sodas and beer at Arooga’s Grill House & Sports Bar in West Hanover Twp.
It’s lunchtime, and with exception to televisions blaring ESPN and CNBC — there are hundreds of them planted around the restaurant, from flatscreens lining the walls to single smaller screens mounted at each of the booths — it is quiet.
The atmosphere is less raucous than happy hour. Or, for that matter, a big sports day like NFL football playoffs or March Madness.
Arooga’s co-founder Gary Huether, Jr. slips in the restaurant’s side entrance. Wearing black flip flops, cargo shorts and a red jacket stitched with a small Arooga’s logo, he could pass as one of the diners.
He does a property inspection, checking the hostess station to ensure pagers work, examining the bar’s coolers for cleanliness and making sure no food in the kitchen’s walk-in refrigerators and freezers has expired.
“Everything becomes a system. It’s just the way it is,” he says.
The 32-year Huether, along with his partner, Mike Murphy, have managed in less than five years to turn the Arooga’s name into a burgeoning empire.
Their sports bar restaurants, plastered with televisions and heavy on simple, cheap food like wings, burgers and stromboli for the masses, have become a household name in the midstate.
Take any Sunday afternoon during football season and diners loop around the parking lots looking for empty spaces. Inside, fans sit elbow-to-elbow fixated on the televisions, beer and wings.
The Arooga’s umbrella includes seven establishments, with restaurants in Harrisburg, East Pennsboro Twp., Lower Paxton Twp., Hampden Twp., West Hanover Twp., Hanover and York. There are plans for Arooga’s to launch nationally with franchise outlets.
The Arooga name stretches beyond restaurants. Senators and Hershey Bears fans order Arooga’s wings and fries at Arooga’s Wing Shacks at Metro Bank Park in Harrisburg and the Giant Center in Hershey.
The chain’s namesake line of barbecue and hot sauces, from mildly hot to an Awesome Everything Hot Sauce along with Super Bleu Cheese and Super Ranch dressings, recently became available for sale at Karns Food Stores and also sell online and in the restaurants.
Then there is Sagoora (that’s Arooga’s spelled backwards), a premium house vodka made by Philadelphia Distillery and poured at the restaurants. It will soon become available for sale online via its website and possibly regionally in the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Boards wine and spirit shops.
Plans are in the works to add three more items to the line, a raspberry and orange vodka, and a potentially a Sagoora rum. 

A team approach

The success of the chain can be attributed to a teamwork approach by the owners.
Murphy, who owns a commercial real estate company, handles the real estate end of the business. Huether oversees the day-to-day operations.
“He’s younger and he has a fire under him. I’m a little older, a little more experienced,” Murphy says. “It just works well. Arooga’s is a big company and he and I just work together well.”
It is a relationship that involves half a dozen daily phone calls. Their conversations cover everything from new locations to refinancing properties to maintenance issues.
While Murphy plays a behind-the-scenes role securing and managing the properties, it is Huether who interacts with the diners and works closely with the Arooga’s 500-plus member team. He also oversees Arooga’s product and menu development and negotiates deals with vendors.
Senior general manager of the Hampden Twp. restaurant Tina Mosdal calls Huether a genius. “He’s very motivated. He has his mind set on the goal. I think his mind is always racing with a new idea, a new concept,” she said. 

Crafting the menu

Eight years ago, Huether owned a Snap-on tools franchise in Harrisburg. In 2006, he met Murphy when both became investing partners in KoKoMo’s, a local chain known for its award-winning wings.
They both ended up buying out the KoKoMo’s restaurant in West Hanover Twp. and converted it to On 22, a restaurant. It then took one year to create Arooga’s.
A few weeks after opening in West Hanover Twp., the second Arooga’s took the West Shore by storm at the former Dorado restaurant in East Pennsboro Twp.
The name — Arooga is the noise a Model T horn makes — was chosen through a customer contest. They carefully crafted a menu aimed at better, not frozen bar food.
“Why couldn’t we have a better product instead of a lot of the sports bars that are just microwaves and fryers? There is not a lot of cooking really involved in that,” Huether said.
At each of the Arooga’s, bread, salsa, marinara sauce and breading for items such as mozzarella sticks are made from scratch. They also fry their own nacho chips.
The chain’s menus are lengthy (12 pages on the online version) and designed to appeal to a variety of tastes. Diners can order Maryland style crab dip, cheeseburger quesadillas, pulled pork fries, wings, sliders, pizzas or oven toasted subs.
Huether ensures the menu is constantly evolving. At a recent staff meeting, he passes out instructions on how to make 11 new menu items — skinny wings, sweet potato chips, flatbread pizzas, garlic knots and clam strips — for an economy buster Cheap Eats menu.
A dozen managers and chefs gather for the nearly three-hour weekly meeting. As Huether reviews each of the items, he leaves out no detail right down to ensuring the chefs have acquired new pizza stones.
The managers are encouraged to push the new items on the weekday lunch buffet to build excitement among staff and customers. “If it’s not talked about and sampled, it will never become a success,” Huether says.
The intention is for the foods to be so popular they become permanent fixtures on Arooga’s regular menu. The Skinny Wings, unbreaded wings baked instead of fried , boast one-third less fat than traditional wings and are served with light ranch dressing.
“We do not want these coming out gummy. We want them crisp,” he says. “I think it gives us a health option we have not had.” 

Aiming to improve

The equation is simple: Erect hundreds of televisions and serve reasonably priced beer and bar specials, and the diners will come. Throw in the novelty of servers dressed in black and white striped referee outfits.
Yet, Arooga’s is dogged by unfavorable comments on dining websites such as The chain has been criticized for slow service, lukewarm wings and mixed up orders.
“We are packed everyday and we’re doing tons of business and everyone says we’re doing horrible on the Internet. You know the routine. You have one person, if it’s bad, they tell 10,” Murphy said.
Arooga’s sends seven secret shoppers into each of its restaurants every month to critique service, food and the overall dining or takeout experience. Phone calls for to-go orders are even recorded.
“We think that is important as we grow to make sure we are doing a good job. We are always looking for ways to improve and those are a great guide for us,” Huether said.
Every week Arooga’s serves about 25,000 guests, a number which easily rises to 35,000 during football season.
For many, the Arooga’s price point is the draw.
“In this economy, there is more people trying to find a location like that than where you are paying $20 to $30 an entree. You can go in and have a much more affordable meal and some beverages for half the amount,” said Eric Desrosiers, president and CEO of Capitol Hotel Investments.
Desrosiers worked with Huether and Murphy last year when he sold his restaurant Spice at the corner of North Second and Locust streets in Harrisburg to them. (Murphy actually owns the building.)
Arooga’s made its entry into the city earlier this year.
“Gary and Mike are two people who work constantly and they are constantly researching,” Desrosiers said.
Their research goes beyond what type of beer to put on draft or which type of electronics to install. They view Arooga’s as a brand.
The idea being if people have a bottle of Sagoora vodka in their homes, they will constantly be reminded of the Arooga name. That translates into more filled seats in the restaurants.
The hope is to sell the chain’s sauces in more grocery stores and eventually add Arooga’s skinny wings to supermarket frozen foods aisles. It’s an idea they borrowed from national chains like TGI Friday’s and California Pizza Kitchen which sell products in grocery stores.
“If we are going to be in this industry, why not be in every part of it?” Huether said. 

Eying other sites

At the moment, Murphy is scouring Lancaster County to find a property to purchase and open an eighth Arooga’s. They also are eyeing the Maryland border for expansion in towns like Frederick and Towson.
“We kind of feel central Pennsylvania is tapped out. We have five stores in about 15 miles from end to end,” Huether said.
The down economy has helped to put Arooga’s on the fast track. A lack of competition for properties and the fact banks aren’t as willing to finance projects has been a plus for the chain.
Huether and Murphy often receive calls from real estate agents or those in the restaurant industry asking if they would like to purchase properties.
They are masters at buying and converting closed restaurants such as the Damon’s on the Carlisle Pike in Hampden Twp. Before they'll even consider a property, it must meet certain criteria.
“Our biggest problem finding spots is parking. There is always a restaurant but there is never enough parking. Then we start looking if it meets the parking requirements is the building big enough? And ceiling requirements because we try and get a lot of TVs,” Murphy said.
An area’s projected growth, demographic and average income are all part of the Arooga’s formula as well as the number of nearby restaurants. They prefer to buy properties, not rent.
Next up, Arooga’s is initiating plans for the chain to spread its wings beyond central Pennsylvania. It has acquired licenses to franchise in 32 states, including Pennsylvania. By the end of the year, they hope to hire a full-time employee to oversee franchising, but it’s not something they want to rush.
Why so much caution? After all, they have managed to cover the midstate map with Arooga’s restaurants in the blink of an eye.
“We want to make sure when we sell them we do it right. We want to give them the best possible service so that it’s an absolute success,” Murphy said. 

Arooga’s Grill House & Sports Bar has seven locations in central Pennsylvania:

Arooga’s Route 15: 1300 Camp Hill Bypass, East Pennsboro Twp. 717-730-9464 
Arooga’s Downtown: 201 N. Second St., Harrisburg 717-901-8277
Arooga’s Route 11: 4713 Carlisle Pike, Hampden Twp. 717-737-9464 
Arooga’s Route 22: 7025 Allentown Blvd., West Hanover Twp. 717-920-9464 
Arooga’s Route 39: 4301 Linglestown Road, Lower Paxton Twp. 717-909-9464
Arooga's Route 124: 1211 Haines Road, York 717-718-9464 
Arooga’s Route 94: 375 Eisenhower Drive, Hanover 717-591-9464
Release Date: 
Sunday, July 1, 2012