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The Key Largo Veterans of Foreign Wars post, like the organization’s other posts nationwide, opened decades ago with the purpose of helping war veterans, their families, and active-duty service men and women.
But in recent years — through mismanagement, declining membership, neglect, and theft — the mile marker 102 post became a dive bar full of “riff-raff” wasting away the day ordering cheap drinks, said Jason Kendall, 46, a recently retired Marine Corps major, who, with four other veterans, took over leadership of the post in late May.
“Their attitude was business is slow, let’s lower the price of drinks,” Kendall said. “All that does is change the dynamic of the clientele of your establishment.”
Instead of being lifted out of financial dire straits, the VFW’s bar and restaurant attracted a bad crowd, drugs, and day-time drunks. Fewer of the regulars were even veterans anymore. Some of the new officers believe the atmosphere that grew at the VFW led to the October murder of one of the post’s auxiliary members, Mary Bonneville.
They are determined to change that, to reopen it with the dual goal of looking after veterans’ interests and serving good food and drinks — at a profit.
“It is going to be a different place when we finally open our doors, and the old crowd is not welcome back,” Kendall said this week. “The majority of the clientele were there for cheap drinks, and they’re not contributing anything.”
The first order of business was to close the place down, and that meant letting go of the workers. When it reopens, the VFW will have new kitchen, wait, and bar staff.
“If you bring in anyone from the past, you bring in old habits,” said Kendall, who said some of the former staff were stealing.
“The bar was supporting employees with more than just a paycheck,” he said. “We’re getting rid of everyone who worked there. All new people.”
Dennis Ward, Monroe County’s state attorney and VFW Post 10211’s new commander, said after he, Kendall, and the other new officers took a close look at the operation, they knew the only way it could survive is to be torn down and completely rebuilt.
“It was a leaderless organization without the oversight we needed,” said Ward, who served in the Marines.
Inside, walls will come down (the drop ceiling is already down), and Kendall removed the old plexiglass front windows and installed clear storm-resistant windows. A little more sunlight shines through the post now, whereas before it was so dark, you could step inside and soon lose track of the time of day.
“We’ve been in office approximately 30 days,” said John Donnelly, one of the new officers. “Mr. Kendall, a retired Marine Corps major, has already researched, uncovered and taken steps to remedy the ills that have plagued VFW Post 10211.”
Even the eponymous red, white, and blue VFW canopy is gone. Over the weekend, Kendall, along with three other VFW members, two auxiliary members, and five non-members removed a trailer full of debris that they tore down to make room for the planned makeover.
Kendall’s ultimate goal is to have an established restaurant owner, or someone with hospitality-management experience, take over the post’s bar and kitchen operation in some sort of profit-sharing arrangement. Under his vision, a portion of the proceeds would go toward veterans causes and events that the post participates in.
Members would still likely eat and drink at reduced prices, but the bar and restaurant would serve the public, and preferably families and people looking to get a good burger or a fish sandwich. And, while beer, wine, and liquor will be served, Kendall and the new officers don’t want to see the post return to being a place for barflies to hang out all day.
“We’re going to bring the post back, and it’s going to be better than it’s ever been,” Kendall said.
A professional restauranteur would have a stake in the place and incentive to make sure it’s run properly, he said.
“I have a master’s degree. I have an MBA,” Kendall said. “But I don’t have a background in the hospitality industry, and that’s a 24-hour-seven-day-a-week job.”
VFWs are made up of two entities — a nonprofit, limited-liability corporation and the local charter. The only mandates that the national VFW places on charters is to have a place for members to meet “and that we have members,” Kendall said.
Kendall sees no reason why the bar and restaurant should not be profitable, especially since the post owns the land and building.
“We’re in Key Largo and we’re on U.S. 1,” he said. “You’re going to make money.”
In the meantime, renovations will take time and money, and the VFW is looking for both cash donations and materials. People have stepped up. Kendall struck up a conversation while buying paint for another home he owns in Winter Haven last week, telling the owners of Resi Comm Paint about the Key Largo VFW. The company donated paint for the front of the building.
“That’s someone who’s not even in the Keys who’s going out of his way here for the veterans,” Kendall said.
As for a date for a grand re-opening, Kendall said he and the rest of the officers are in no rush. They have a lot of work ahead of them, and they’re under no illusion that the project will be easy. They’re willing to wait for someone to partner with who would have the skills and dedication to run a restaurant worthy of the veterans.
“When everything gets done, we’ll open back up,” Kendall said. “But we don’t want to open up and be the same as it was before. So, when we open, we want to open up right.”
For more information about donating, volunteering to help with renovations, or about partnering with the VFW’s restaurant, call Kendall at (808) 679-7187.