It was Saturday night of Move-In Weekend and Blake Jennings, co-owner of Kona Bistro with his brother Tyler, sat inside Left Field Tavern with a beer in hand as he watched the meager foot traffic go by outside the window.
“I should have been yelling at my cooks during the dinner rush,” Jennings said. “But instead, I was sitting in a bar on what is supposed to be one of my busiest nights of the year.”
Business had been going downhill for around a year before Kona decided to shutter their 20-year-old locally loved business.
“You know, there’s usually enough big events like Move in Weekend, Homecoming, Parents’ Weekend, and whatever to make it to J-Term,” Jennings said. “And then you have Greek stuff in the spring, and then that all leads to graduation. The summers weren’t bad, but our biggest base was townies, and I wouldn’t see them until university breaks or for special occasions.”
But then the tenuous balance of business was upended by Miami University’s influence in Oxford.
Jennings blamed the 442 events Miami held on campus during the first part of this semester, with many events offering free food to entice kids to stay on campus rather than venture uptown where the allure of underage drinking awaits.
Miami also recently changed the football game schedule. Previously, games were primarily held in the mid-afternoon, allowing for ample lunch and dinner rushes before and after the game. But now that more games are held around dinnertime, Kona no longer had the same steady stream of alumni, students and parents flooding through their doors, according to Jennings.
The restaurant’s several employees were notified Kona was closing its doors via the staff GroupMe.
“A ton of us thought it was a joke,” said Abigail Wenger, a server at Kona since April. “I thought it was a joke.”
So, Wenger sent a message to her manager, asking if the message was genuine. Wenger recalled the response: “We’re closed. Now.” The managers, who facilitated the interaction between the shift staff and the restaurant’s owners, found out only hours before the restaurant closed permanently, according to Wenger.
“I wasn’t really angry,” Wenger said. “I just kinda wanted to know why.”
She never found out.
“And I think above anything else, I just felt kinda sad for the managers because they had been working there so long and they got notice of the restaurant closing so soon, so I just really felt bad for them. Because I knew that I’d be able to find another job, because I’m a student, but that was their means of living.”
Three months ago, Jennings renovated Kona to make the restaurant a more appealing location for students, but it couldn’t keep the ship from sinking. The trajectory was set.
“It had run its course,” Jennings admitted. “It was such a tradition in Oxford. How do you rebrand with a reputation like that?… Our student clientele was zilch. All the college kids think it’s a nice place to go, so it’s considered too nice.”
With few other upscale restaurants left in town, Jennings lamented the “implosion” of the market, and the “out of control” climate surrounding Oxford politics.
“We closed at 4 p.m. on Monday, but then we had a party Tuesday with the Chamber, City Council, and all the other bigwigs in town to celebrate our second anniversary of ownership,” Jennings said. “I didn’t say anything about us closing. I wanted them to understand this was due to decisions they made here in Oxford. And, I mean, who’s next?”
Jennings described the disappointment he feels when he reflects on his childhood in Oxford and how everything has led him to this point.
“It’s a painful, strung-out thing,” Jennings said. “It’s going to send a message. If I’m going down, I’m going to say something about it… Take a step back and look at what’s happening to this beautiful town. Look at what you did.”