words and photos by Nate Edmunds
Over the last few decades the Chestnut Beer Garden in Cuyahoga Falls has evolved from a bonafide ramshackle dive, to something of a hidden gem. The bar has weathered neighborhood decline, rises in narcotics use (which always seem to take root in lower-middle and working class establishments), and the boom of the craft beer industry. What is it like to bartend a little dive bar through all of this? Meet Kenny Kiernan.
“I’ve been working at the Chestnut for about 20 years now,” Kenny says. “Before that I was working at the DIY. That was lumber and millwork, before they went out of business. And before that I did a lot of home remodeling jobs, putting in drop ceilings, plaster, a lot of painting, that kind of stuff. Anything I could do, I would do. I got my first bartending job when I was 21 years old in a little place called the Friar Tuck out in Kent, which was the Robin Hood years before it, and years after.”
Kenny was born and raised in Northeast Ohio in the early 1950s. When he would journey from Kent to Akron as a young man, it would be on tar and gravel roads that were surrounded mostly by farmland and woods. He knows about navigating change.
“I’d say this bar goes through about 25 percent clientele turnover every year,” Kenny says. “That means in three or four years, you would hardly recognize anyone in here! I always say, I don’t make friends when I’m working, I make associates!”
Kenny recalls one of the more notable transformations the Chestnut has gone through in 20 years. “Now the jukeboxes are digital which means people can play anything they find on their phone. But before, we had a jukebox with 45s in it. That meant we controlled the music, which determined who came in. Over time, that really had an effect on the bar. This place used to be known as the best little rock and roll bar in the area!”
On the challenges of bartending what can be a volatile environment, Kenny explains, “You’ll go through just about every scenario you can go through bartending this kind of place. And when you go through something once, you can damn sure expect to go through the same exact thing again at some point. I’ve seen plenty of bartenders react to arguments and fights and only make the situation worse. You can’t always deescalate a situation, but sometimes it’s enough to not escalate it more. Sometimes you have to wait it out.”
And what advice would he give to those thinking about bartending? “There’s no money in the little neighborhood bars. It’s ok for a second income or a little bit of side cash, or if you’re just killing time,” his mouth forms into a smirk thinner than the crack in a windowpane and then he laughs, “I’d tell them, find other work!”
Nathan Edmunds is a father, husband, writer and musician who grew up believing his uncle was Willie Nelson. He is also an amateur ice cream taster. He purchased his Bachelor’s degree in English from Kent State University, and got a pretty ok job! Check out his psychedelic garage band at lowsiders.com