Having overcome many obstacles, Sean Kenny takes great pride in his Farmington Road establishment.
For a young man of 30, Sean Mathew Kenny seems much older. He speaks with a confidence that comes from life experiences few of us have had. Though he brought a lot of pain on himself, his family and friends before straightening his life out, the fruits of his efforts can be felt today at the bar on Farmington Road that bears his name: Kenny’s Westside Pub.
An Early Education
Sean had a solid upbringing, attending Saint Philomena and Notre Dame High School, and graduating in 2003. His father is a lieutenant with the Peoria County Sheriff’s Office, and all he ever wanted to be was a police officer. But with a taste for the nightlife, he fell in with the wrong crowd. “I went along with them, even though I knew some of them sold drugs,” he recalls. “I tried ICC a couple of times, but I never finished the required courses, and the dream of being a police officer just slipped away.”
With some aspects of his life out of control and only a high school education, Sean sought out the only job he could get. His early life was connected with a local bar and restaurant, where most of his family worked. “We did everything at my uncle’s place—weddings, funerals, holidays… and I loved it. My uncle would let me wipe down the bar and mix certain drinks—I guess that’s where I got my early education in dealing with people.
“I was a busboy, janitor, waiter, line cook and bar back,” he says. “Even though I was not always in good condition, I took those jobs very seriously and had a strong work ethic… I loved talking to the customers and making sure they got the best service I could give.
“It seemed I was always trying to prove to myself and others that I was the best man they could have hired,” he adds. “Believe me, there were some dark periods in my life—times when I thought there was no place for me to go. I know many people wrote me off as a lost cause… that I was not long for this earth. Truth is, I felt that way myself on occasion.
“[But] I got a job as a laborer with a construction company, and that was the best summer of my life. The bosses kept on me… and that helped me in so many ways. A lot of tough love finally got me back in line, and I have been clean of most of my past for years. But what I really wanted to do next was be a bartender. I tried every way I knew, including begging. Believe me, it did not come easy.”
Sean eventually found a bartending job at an authentic Irish bar in downtown Peoria. “That place inspired me, and I took a lot of pride in working there,” he says. “Finally, I was a bartender, and I considered myself the hardest-working bartender in town. I also took on the role of manager, and it looked like I had finally arrived where I wanted to be. Well… sadly, that place closed down.”
He tried to get on as a bartender at the old Lucky Lady on Farmington Road, which had reopened under a new name, but they weren’t interested. “Norm, I remember the day my luck changed because it was the annual ‘Pub Crawl’… I worked about 10 hours that day, and that evening, I went in to have a beer and try to relax. I was stunned at the huge crowd, and one of the owners was trying to cope with the onslaught… He said, ‘Sean, you always wanted that bartender job—get back here and go to work.’ I soon had things under control… and I was hired then and there.”
Sean worked long hours and pretty much ran the place, and he felt he was getting somewhere in life. A lot of his customers assumed he was part-owner because he was there all the time, and eventually, he was given a two-percent ownership. “Then I began to flirt with a dream of being a real partner—or even owning a place of my own.”
He had a girlfriend at the time, and the couple talked about marriage. “My girlfriend convinced me that I was in a dead-end job, going nowhere. Also, the dream of owning a place of my own, or as a partner, was just a pipe dream.” Looking to change his life, Sean found a house he wanted to buy and applied for a sales position at a local beer distributor. “Well, I didn’t get the job, and the same week, the bank told me I would not get the house loan… All that really broke my heart.”
Now he was disillusioned. The romance was over, and he ended up living in a friend’s basement with a mattress on the floor for his bed. But he had one asset that he had relied on before, and that was live music promotion. While still at his old job, he got permission to bring in a celebrity, and that got Sean back in the music business.
“I contacted a one-time celebrity named Afroman; he’d had a big hit record, but he was kind of on his way down.” Using the money he’d saved to buy a house, Sean made arrangements to bring him to Peoria. “If I failed, I had the feeling it would be devastating to me, so I went all out, calling on friends and really promoting this night of entertainment,” Fortunately for Sean, it was a major success—and hinted at his future. “I use that experience today in booking the bands that come to my place on Farmington Road.”
A New Irish Pub
After a “big row” with his boss, Sean was down on his luck again; turns out, their argument might have been the luckiest thing that ever happened to him. “My brother told me the Dormitory was for sale—that’s where I currently have my business, Kenny’s Westside Pub. Back in the 1940s, it was called the Parkway—the old place Bernie Shelton had. If you remember the history, he was shot and killed right there in the parking lot.”
Sean bought the place, and at six in the morning on February 1, 2013, he showed up to clean and take it over. “It smelled to high heaven, and as we tore into it, I found the most disgusting filth you could possibly imagine. I had some help from my friends and family, and two college kids as well. My goal was to open March 1st, but we never made it.” The new opening date, however, was Saint Patrick’s Day—perfect for a new Irish pub.
For weeks, Sean and his friends worked 12- and 14-hour days and into the night, getting the place ready. A few days before opening, he began to order all the material, food, beer and alcoholic beverages he needed to open up. “I was pretty much broke by then, but I just kept calling and ordering whatever I needed. Soon as it was delivered, I handed the man a check. It would not be long before they would begin to bounce all over town, but I just kept writing them. The only thought in my head was to open Kenny’s Westside Pub—I would take whatever consequences came my way.
“Well, Saint Patrick’s Day dawned bright and early, and we were all at the bar—all the people I hired, some friends and family. As soon as we opened the doors, I knew it was going to be a great success… The money poured in and as soon as my bank opened, I was there to make my deposits. Thankfully, not one of those checks bounced.”
Working Hard on Farmington Road
For a while, Sean Kenny also found time to be a 25-percent owner in a place that had a country theme. The owner asked him to take over development, and that is exactly what he did, turning it into a great success. “I had my own place and a nice percentage of another place,” he explains. “I loved the planning and all the hard work it took to make it run. But truth is, I am not a big fan of today’s country music; I like the old guys, like Willie and Waylon. So, the owner paid me back my initial investment and I was free to concentrate full-time on Kenny’s Westside Pub.”
My nephew tells me that Sean Kenny is known as the “mayor” of the F.R.E.D.; Sean laughs about the honorary title. “I am proud that folks think of me that way,” he says. “F.R.E.D. means ‘Farmington Road Entertainment District.’ Daryl Klusendorf [of Sky Harbor Steak House] thought the whole thing up, and he’s our leader. Our goal is to call attention to the fine bars, restaurant and night spots on Farmington Road and hope that folks try us the next time they go out to dinner or are looking for great live music.”
Sean’s hard work was validated last fall when Kenny’s Westside Pub was selected as a finalist for a national award sponsored by US Foods. From the beginning, he tells me, he had a lot to prove—not only to himself, but to all those who wrote him off long ago. “I certainly do not blame them. I was down and in a dark place, until I slowly worked my way up to where I am today. I hope the readers of this fine magazine will check my place out and give the businesses on Farmington Road a chance to serve them.”
Sean is a pleasant, entertaining guy, and he always greets you with that big Irish grin. When you walk into his place, just ask if the “mayor” is in. He usually is. iBi
Norm Kelly is a Peoria historian and true crime writer. He can be reached at [email protected].