When Michael Kemna (’16, Criminal Justice) was just out of high school in Cumberland, Maine, in 2010, he put together binders of research on colleges and universities to help inform his decision.
He brought the same level of focus and commitment to campus when he chose Florida Gulf Coast University, partly swayed by campus beach and water skiing photos. When he was later interested in joining a new campus fraternity, his natural leadership skills were so unmistakable that he was effectively hand-picked to be the chapter’s first president. And when Kemna was helping pay his way through school by working at Cantina 109, a Gulf Coast Town Center restaurant, he couldn’t stop himself from checking in for short stints – off the clock – to offer an extra set of hands.
Now he owns the place – or partly owns it anyway – all before he turned 31 in December.
The guy just has no off switch.
“I can’t be still. I can’t sit,” said Kemna.
His wife, fellow 2016 FGCU alum Emma Keith, is supportive, putting up with his late nights and long hours. A teacher at Bonita Springs High School, she shares his vision for expanding and opening additional restaurants – and setting up solid future together.
“(We) go out to eat a lot. When we’re out I’ll look around and notice things – a lightbulb out, if servers are smiling. I try to take all that and bring it back to my restaurant.”
Kemna can’t really explain his knack for leadership other than a willingness, “a passion,” in fact, as he calls it, to work hard. It was first instilled by his father, Michael Kemna, who always pushed his son to be the best he could be.
During early organizing events for the then-new Pi Kappa Phi chapter at FGCU, others routinely approached Kemna thinking he was in charge. Then the fraternity’s national organization appointed him to the position.
“I think that’s one of the first things that prepared me for business,” he said. “I had to manage a budget. We had 75 members. And they all looked to me and said, ‘What are we going to do now?’
“I figured it out. We won fraternity of the year the first year. We won some national awards that an associate chapter – meaning a brand-new chapter – had never won before from the national organization.”
Developing these skills helped prepare him for a professional career. Now, instead of 75 members of a fraternity, he manages over 50 employees and handfuls of vendors and purveyors.
At Cantina 109, which had a different name and ownership when Kemna began work there in 2014, he quickly ascended from busser to server to bartender. When a new owner took over in 2015 and raised workplace standards, his eagerness to do more only grew.
“There was no slack,” said Kemna, who was named general manager just after graduating. “A lot of times I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ But it helped me develop the way I do things now.”
By 2020, when restaurant owner and mentor David Andreas had moved out of state, Kemna was prepared for an ownership role. The COVID-19 pandemic put those plans on hold until early 2022, when Kemna purchased his first stake in what is eventually intended to be full ownership of the restaurant.
The pandemic also gave restaurateurs other challenges to navigate, such as safety protocols, supply chain delays and labor shortages. Yet under Kemna’s leadership, Cantina 109’s sales doubled from 2020, the first year of the pandemic, to 2021. With 2022 wrapping up, sales have already surpassed previous records, he said.
Kemna believes many businesses did well after COVID because people had been pent up for a long time.
“But the issue was being able to manage the amount of people that wanted to come in,” he said. “That was the biggest part of what we did – staff correctly.”
Kemna pivots quickly to praise his employees, an FGCU-heavy bunch.
“Mike has been blessed with really good people. But those people also stay because he’s good to everybody,” said FGCU student success counselor Barb Dietter, a longtime Cantina 109 employee whose four sons and ex-husband all have worked at the restaurant. “It really is a unique situation. These kids don’t know each other when they get hired. But they do everything together now. They’re a family.”