Twin Lakes Tavern sees new life under new ownership during the pandemic
When Shannon Zemba revived the Tavern, she brought inspiration from her mother. ‘This was really a way of us kind of bringing her spirit back to life early with this building.’
This week the Twin Lakes Tavern reopened its doors to patrons under new ownership.
Shannon Zemba, owner of Kent’s Over Easy Morning Cafe, purchased the shuttered restaurant in January with hopes of reopening in March. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, she pushed back the opening. Now, after months of remodeling and renovations, the Kent staple is open again, albeit with a new flare.
There’s a backstory to the revamp. Zemba moved to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands after high school to be with her mother, who owned a series of hotels and restaurants there. After losing her mother to cancer, Zemba wanted something to commemorate her and the spirit of the Caribbean, a place where she feels she grew as a person and restaurateur.
“That’s how I became who I am today is from living on St. Croix and because of my mom,” Zemba said. “So when she passed away, this was really a way of us kind of bringing her spirit back to life early with this building. Every little thing in here is something that has to do with my mom.”
With that spirit in mind, Zemba and her husband Chad, along with co-owner and head chef Emily Hansford, began renovations on the building. New drywall, floors and newly renovated kitchens are some of the many changes the three have made to the waterfront eatery.
Colorful murals of aquatic life adorn a wall in the sun room while an ornate painting of an octopus hangs in the aptly named “octopus room.” Bartenders serve flights of beer on trays designed as handcrafted models of the Edmund Fitsgerald, USS Enterprise and other iconic vessels, while wine flights are served on wooden carriers bearing the likenesses of vibrant stingrays.
The cocktail menu features recipes pulled straight from St. Croix, with a page dedicated to multiple tiki-inspired bowl drinks served in ceramic clams, bowls and sharks. The space lives up to its reputation with many seafood dishes focused on fresh ingredients and locally sourced produce.
“We love food and we love big fun food that’s gonna basically make you happy. From the presentation to the service to when you leave, you’re still thinking about it,” Zemba said. “You know, food brings people together.”
The Twin Lakes Tavern has been part of Kent’s history since the 1920s. In its hundred years, it’s been a bar, a speakeasy, a brothel, a bar again and finally a bar and restaurant. Richard Gressard owned and operated the Tavern for 30 years until his death in early 2018. Kellie May was Richard’s fiance for 18 years and worked at the Tavern for 15 years.
“In the beginning when Richard first opened up it was a different time,” May said. “It was more of a bar than a restaurant and we were open every single night, never closed early.”
After first purchasing the space at auction in 1986 Gressard worked for over a year to renovate it. May says Gressard’s mother would cook bluegill in the parking lot to keep the food license active during the renovations. When DUI laws became stricter in Ohio the Tavern lost a lot of business, bringing Gressard back to making food the Tavern’s staple.
“We had to go back to our food and bring people in that way,” May said. “We managed to survive it and we built up a reputation as one of the best seafood restaurants around, and it was.”
“There was really corny, outdated fish-themed decor that everyone always got a kick out of,” said Kaylee Cool, who managed the Tavern for four years until it closed in 2018. “When people sat on the patio they’d always feel like they were in Key West.”
Cool describes the Tavern the way people describe the Bull & Finch Pub from Cheers, a place where everyone knows your name. Bartenders knew drink orders just by seeing who walked in the door, and when the patio was closed for the winter, most of the patrons were regulars. When the patio was open, first time visitors, parents of freshly dropped off Kent State students and an assortment of bikers, book clubs and teenagers visited the Tavern.
Gressard died Jan. 20, 2018, and the new owner decided after a brief reopening, to close the restaurant.
“It was difficult,” Cool said. “Richard was a great guy with a good heart. Thankfully most of the staff from those years are still really good friends and we got each other through it.”
Now in 2020, the Twin Lakes Tavern is still the Tavern, if only in name and spirit. The new owners are working to create a space where friends and strangers can come together in a fun, welcoming atmosphere for a pint and high quality seafare, something the Tatavern has been doing for over two generations and three owners.
Though most of the space has been remodeled, there is still work to be done. Air conditioning is being installed and sun shades are being fitted for the patio in an effort to modernize, and cool down, the space.
Buying, renovating and opening a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic — one that’s seen hundreds of restaurants and bars temporarily, and permanently, shuttered — was a decision made out of dedication and love, she said. Earlier this year, with her other restaurant shut down due the pandemic, Zemba and her husband saw an opportunity.
Most all of the major renovations of the space — the walls, floors, patio and bar — were done by Zemba and her husband, who was also furloughed during the early months of 2020.
“We just saw it as, you know what? This is OK. Because we can just focus our energy on this kind of work over here,” Zemba said. “So when you couldn’t go anywhere, really do anything or be around people, it was OK because me and my husband were the only ones doing all the remodeling. So we were here working away.”
The Tavern employs approximately 40 people who, in compliance with Ohio mandates, all wear masks during their shift. Every other table in the space is closed in order to enforce social distancing, and tables and surfaces are regularly disinfected.
As renovations wrap up, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Ohio is accelerating, leading to uncertainty about whether restaurants will be able to stay open. Despite the uncertainty, Zemba is trying to remain hopeful. She’s in the process of developing the next additions to the space, which include a boardwalk from the patio to the shores of the lake.
“We’re moving forward,” Zemba said, “We just hope everyone appreciates that we brought the building back and what we have to offer is something new, fun and fresh.”