In 2010, U.S. Army Capt. Robert Kemna was in Logar, Afghanistan, a civil affairs officer attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, helping locals transition to take charge of U.S.-run reconstruction projects. Wednesday, one day after his last official day on active duty, Kemna was making a transition of his own.
The 33-year-old veteran with 15 years’ service opened a 7-Eleven franchise in South Miami-Dade at the crossroads of Southwest 127th Avenue and Quail Roost Drive. He won the convenience store’s corporate competition for veterans seeking a step up to start a small business — just one of three veterans chosen from an initial pool of 1,700 who competed from across the country, Kemna said. The contest was called “Operation: Take Command.”
“It’s a pretty good corner,” said Kemna soon after opening the doors to the 24-hour store at 6 a.m. He’s hoping for a brisk business, in part, because the next nearest gas station is about two miles away.
A sign hanging above the merchandise said it all: “Proudly owned & operated by a U.S. Army veteran.”
The first sale was a $1.71 Slurpee. It was red.
In winning the new shop, 7-Eleven waived the up-to $190,000 franchise fee. The convenience store giant bought the land, built the store and put in the equipment, which it owns.
The national contest was meant to winnow down the veterans to just one winner, publicist Patricia Maldonado said. But President and CEO Joe DePinto, a graduate of West Point and former Army first lieutenant, couldn’t pick just one among three veterans who interviewed in Dallas for the prize.
So he gave out three franchises — one in Virginia, one in Texas and the third to Kemna, a transplant from Iowa. He met his wife Liliana, also 33, in Miami Beach who, Kemna said proudly, “has a very successful career” as a project engineer at the Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant.
Kemna’s contest pitch was that he wanted to settle down and start a family. The couple met while he was posted in South Florida with the Active Guard Reserve between 2008 and 2012. They wed in January. So on Day 1, his mother-in-law Guadalupe, 62, was already on the payroll and his dad, a Vietnam veteran, came to watch opening day.
1,700 U.S. military veterans competed for a free 7-Eleven franchise. Three won.
“We don’t have hardly any [7-Elevens] in Iowa,” said his father, Mark, who joined the Navy in 1969 after drawing No. 2 in the draft. Of his son, he said: “He’s one of those guys who makes things run better.”
Mother-in-law Lupita, as she is known, meantime, was on coffee-counter duty, replenishing the supply. “She wanted to work,” said her son-in-law, adding that she trained two weeks ago in another 7-Eleven on how to handle the coffee and hot food, and be a cashier.
At one point, a woman came in looking for a cafe cubano. The hot food case features Hispanic baked goods — pan de bono and guava pastries — but the coffee is standard 7-Eleven fare. For now.
Although Tuesday was his last day on active duty, Kemna’s transitioning to the Army Reserves as an “individual augmentee,” a job that will allow him to predictably twice a year serve as a civil affairs instructor at a base in North Carolina — unless mobilized.
The morning got off to a spirited start hours ahead of an afternoon ribbon-cutting ceremony that promised to have a Slurpee action figure and giveaways.
For the occasion, corporate headquarters sent a virtual platoon of managers and advisers who buzzed around inside and outside the shop. Gas sold at first for $2.21 a gallon. But with only a few people at the pumps at 8:30 a.m., a member of the team tweaked the price to $2.05, a headquarters function not available to Kemna. Staff inside the shop craned their necks through the glass to watch cars stream in and park at every pump.
It was 2 1/2 hours after his first sale to a familiar customer. His wife bought a $1.71 Slurpee and insisted on paying at the register.
“I believe it was wild cherry,” Kemna replied. “It was definitely red.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article described the 7-Eleven president as a former Army captain. His office clarified Thursday that a 7-Eleven publicist misspoke and that he was actually a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army.