Photo by Libby Williams
By Shelley Hill Young
Jen Kulick had just found out she was pregnant with her second child. Her first was 8 months old. She and her husband, Mike, co-owned Voodoo Tiki Bar & Lounge in West Ashley with a partner, and the couple had recently opened Tattooed Moose. The menu, which featured deli sandwiches, didn’t seem to be working. They weren’t sure the place was going to survive.
“There was a lot that didn’t take off,” Jen recalls.
They ditched the menu – except for the duck club – and added the popular sandwiches that remain on the menu almost eight years later.
“There isn’t a placeholder on that menu,” Jen says. “They’re all popular. It’s supposed to be very approachable.”
But the duck club – the duck club is the star. “That sandwich has single-handedly saved us at times,” Jen says.
After the menu change, business started picking up.
Then, a producer for “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” read a review of the duck club on Yelp and host Guy Fieri and the cameras came to the Tattooed Moose to film a segment featuring the signature sandwich. The show aired on the Food Network in January 2012.
“That was the beginning,” Jen says.
Today, the couple still own Voodoo and three Tattooed Moose pubs with a fourth in the works. Jen is the president of the Les Dames d’Escoffier, the local chapter of the prestigious international organization of leading women in the food and beverage industry who serve as role models and mentors for others.
Jen grew up behind the bar, and she’s obviously comfortable in charge.
“I dominated my world,” she says proudly.
She started waiting tables when she was 15. “It fit my personality immediately,” she says.
But she went through an existential crisis after she left college and later realized that she was probably not going back. After she moved to Charleston with a boyfriend who wanted to attend Johnson & Wales University for culinary school, she saw that the food and beverage industry “wasn’t on the fringes.” “It was a viable profession,” she says.
So when the relationship didn’t work out and the boyfriend moved, she continued her job at Vickery’s Corp. and moved up the ranks. A few years later she met her now-husband and opened Voodoo, and after a few places that didn’t work out, the first Tattooed Moose, which was loosely modeled after a college bar Jen used to go to that had a moose on the wall.
Not only did Guy’s visit bring national attention and customers to Tattooed Moose, but Jen recently told a crowd at the Charleston Music Hall for Pecha Kucha that he also offered great advice, telling her and her husband to “go out and brand yourself and expand.”
That’s just what they’ve done.
When the couple took their children out to Kiawah and couldn’t find a place on the way back to their West Ashley home to stop for a beer and a burger, they decided to build the Johns Island Tattooed Moose.
“If we want it, Johns Island wants it,” she thought.
Same thing with the Citadel Mall location, which opened in May. The couple see a lot of potential for future development of all the mall.
“There’s nothing like the Moose out there,” she says. And now there is.
The couple have bought property in Summerville for a fourth location, which they project to open some time in 2020.
The Pecha Kucha talk was titled “An overnight success in 15 years,” an acknowledgement that she and Mike have worked hard to grow their restaurant business – that they made mistakes along the way and it did not happen overnight. The biggest lesson Jen has learned? “Stay true to yourself and your original thought process and your gut,” she told at crowd at Charleston Music Hall.
Jen’s success can also be attributed to her straightforward yet laid-back and friendly style.
“I’m exactly the same behind the bar as I am at home,” she says. “I think it’s the fact that people feel welcomed. I’m a very social person. It’s easy for me to be engaged.”
“I’ve never really had a problem rising to the level of my goals,” she adds.
As president of Les Dames, Jen says her mission has been to get more of the 45 local members involved in the chapter’s fundraisers and mentoring opportunities. The Les Dames recently hosted a Family Farm Fest fundraiser at Joseph Fields Farm on Johns Island, where they offered picnic baskets and baked goods prepared by the Les Dames, who represent restaurants such as Magnolias, Charleston Grill, Red Orchids and The Obstinate Daughter. It was a departure from last year’s fundraiser, a more formal culinary academy held to prep hostesses for presenting a holiday meal.
“A big part of my goal is to make all members feel included,” Jen says.
Money raised from fundraisers helps pay for scholarships for women in the food and beverage industry who want to pursue advanced education. The Les Dames also identify a charity partner each year, and this year the recipient is Earth Heart Growers, an organization that works to teach children about gardening, cooking and baking in an effort to cultivate healthy eating habits and environmentally friendly practices.
Another mission of Les Dames is to mentor women interested in becoming chefs or starting their own restaurant or catering business. Jen says she often mentors others on management skills. She says she encourages women not to micromanage, but instead to focus on training others and let them make mistakes. She says women who own their own businesses often feel the pressure that everything is life or death, and it really isn’t.
“There’s really nothing that can’t be undone. I always say, ‘At the end of the day, we are not saving lives, we’re serving burgers,’” she says.