Gambier may soon have a new student-run weekend watering hole, offering libations to over-21 patrons as well as unpretentious food, soft drinks and camaraderie to all comers, thanks to the hard work of several students over the past year.
The new bar and restaurant concept, called Flats, has a mission of providing “a social, educational, and safe space for students to encounter many aspects of a traditional Kenyon College experience.” It’s the brainchild of a few friends who started discussing, in spring 2021, the need for a “happy medium” social option to fill the gap between small, private shindigs and large all-campus parties — which present a host of organizational challenges — or College-sponsored events that can feel less casual and natural.
After James Loveland ’22 and Delaney Gallagher ’23 workshopped the idea over the summer, they brought Rocco Danese ’23, Spencer Hirsch ’23 and Charlotte Schultz ’23 onboard last fall. Additional months of business planning resulted in a positive reception from Kenyon administrators, and the new social spot has the green light to begin piloting operations in fall 2022, barring any unforeseen permitting issues. While a permanent location is still to be determined, the Flats crew plans to bring pop-up service to locations like Weaver Cottage, Gund Commons and Old Kenyon at the beginning of fall semester. If successful, these events will provide proof of concept to invest in creating a fixed base of operations.
“When I saw this pitch shortly after I arrived in Gambier, I was very receptive, as I had helped research and create a student-run campus bar at a previous institution,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Celestino Limas, who joined Kenyon in August 2021. “These students continued to meet with me regularly as they refined their business model, gained support for the idea and addressed concerns about the project.”
“We had drive, we had ambition, we wanted to get it done and we were willing to put in the work to do it,” said Gallagher, who has served as Student Council’s vice president for academic affairs. The Flats team has a variety of skills that make them well suited for entrepreneurship and launching a successful social gathering spot; Loveland has been president of Greek Council and of Alpha Delta Phi, and Danese is a past chair of Student Council’s Business and Finance Committee and operated his own sneaker-reselling business in high school.
Plus, “between James and me, we have 14 years of food industry work experience,” Gallagher added. The economics and political science major from Glenview, Illinois has drawn on her experience in the Chicagoland hospitality industry and found major inspiration in KAM’S, a student-run hotspot at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that serves as “one of the most popular places on campus … it’s a staple of that college experience.”
As for the name? Loveland’s cousin suggested it at a July 4 gathering after biology major Loveland explained the business model of providing a simple pricing structure for beer, wine and mixed drinks — which will be offered for a low flat rate more affordable than Gambier’s tonier establishments. For the Cleveland native, the homage to that city’s postindustrial nightlife district of the same name was an added bonus.
And because of the flat prices, “you don’t really have to do math with the tip,” Gallagher pointed out. It’s small conveniences like easy payment that will encourage students to come back time and again, hopefully coming to see Flats as a place to pause between other campus events or to seek a post-party nightcap. “This is going to be another option for students to not be so cramped in a sweaty room trying to have fun because there’s not that many options on campus in a weekend,” said Danese, a political science and international studies double major from Brooklyn. He envisions Flats as a less hectic atmosphere away from the chaos of misplacing your parka in a pile of coats at an all-campus party.
The availability of fast, satisfying late-night food will also be a welcome change from frustrating nights of closed kitchens and desperate calls to the Mount Vernon Domino’s. After-hours dining was more available prior to the demise of institutions like the Gambier Grill (formerly the Pirate’s Cove) and before the onset of the pandemic upended many business models. “So many of the things that were so intrinsic to the fabric of Kenyon” were damaged due to COVID-19, Loveland said. “This is something that we can do to make it better, to rebuild Kenyon as it was.”
Although Loveland will graduate before Flats begins operations, he sees the concept as outlasting any of its founders. “Once it really gets established that this is part of Kenyon, I think it’s going to be amazing,” he said. Danese and Gallagher will helm the operation as managers during their upcoming senior year, while working to build a network of hardworking student employees who can assume the mantle of leadership later on. “You can only improve Kenyon if you pick up the work and try to start something new,” Danese said. “This felt like an outlet to have a project that we could call our own to improve student life on campus.”