Bremerton beer baron rolls out his last barrel

Being an Irishman in the beer distribution business hasn’t always been easy, but Jon Jennings never really considered anything else.

“I generally enjoy the beer business. It was the job I always wanted to do,” he said.

In Jennings’ 32 years with Jennings Corp., a beer and wine distributor in West Bremerton, he held every job in the place.

“(My father) started me off at the bottom of this company, then I was a driver,” for 10 years, Jennings said.

Most employees only drove delivery routes for a few years before being promoted, Jennings said. But owner Bob Jennings had other plans for his son.

“He wanted to make sure I knew every person on every route,” Jennings said.

Jennings eventually worked his way up to vice president of the business. He and his brother-in-law, Lance Kahn, took over ownership of the business when his father died in May 1991.

However, longevity does not run in the family and Jennings, 55, will retire at the end of December. He plans to head to his house in Mexico for five months to play golf and fish, then return to Kitsap in May.

His replacement will be Don Roy, a three-year employee of the Jennings Corp.

The business expanded rapidly over the years. When Bob bought it in 1966, it had $17,000 worth of wine and beer inventory and 10 employees. Now 60 people work for Jennings Corp., which has about $1.5 million in inventory. The warehouse also has tripled in size, to 30,000 square feet.

But as business snowballed, so did Jon Jennings’ legendary antics.

He was fired from the business three times by his father, the longest time for two weeks.

The first time was in the early 1970s, when he and two friends streaked the VIP Lounge in Bremerton, then jumped into a van with the Jennings Corp. logo on the side.

“We wanted to make sure we were the first ones to go to jail for (streaking),” Jennings joked.

Another time he was axed for crashing the SeaFair parade in Seattle.

“We had a restored ’33 International and we put a couple kegs in the back and went to the SeaFair parade,” Jennings said. “We went through the roadblocks and made national television. We handed out beers to all the good-looking women. The liquor control board really frowned on that.”

The restored beer truck also had the Jennings logo on the side.

These stories are just the tip of the iceberg, according to several of Jennings’ friends and sometimes co-conspirators.

Jennings Corp. employee Bill Buhl remembers the night before

St. Patrick’s Day 1980, when he and Jennings painted the town green. Literally.

They bought huge cans of paint and drove slowly through downtown Bremerton, dragging a roller behind them.

“When the cop pulled us over Jon said, ‘I suppose you think we did this,’” Buhl said in a fit of laughter.

There was also the time Jennings and some friends flipped a tunnel-hull boat going 100 miles per hour in front of the Boat Shed restaurant in Bremerton, and the time he and Buhl ran out of fuel three times on a late-night boat ride to the San Juan Islands.

One of Jennings’ personality quirks is that he rarely calls anyone by their given name.

“He’ll know you for a few minutes and you’ve got a nickname,” said Jennings’ sister, JoAnn Kahn.

Killer, Bullet, the Duck, Rocky, Choo Choo, ’Taters, Mr. Good and Weepy are some of the monikers he has assigned people he knows.

And when a new hobby piques Jennings’ interest, he jumps in headfirst, said Jim “J.C.” Carlson, owner of Minder Meats and a long-time friend of Jennings. But when he loses interest, he typically abandons the activity completely.

The long list of pastimes include restoring cars, racing fast boats, exercising, fishing and golfing.

Although a free spirit, he has a heart of gold, friends say.

“He’s a real generous guy. Everybody likes him. There’s not many people like that,” Carlson said.

He was one of the founders of Silverdale’s annual Whaling Days celebration, and he has volunteered for the Kitsap Fair and Stampede. He is president of the Rodeo Cowpokes, a non-profit organization which raises money for the rodeo. Jennings Corp. also gives $60,000-$75,000 annually to community causes like the YMCA, the Admiral Theater and the Harrison Hospital Foundation.

Jennings was emotional last week when he took down decorations in his office, which included photos of professional athletes, fishing trips, the Kitsap Rodeo and friends and family.

“I did cry. I had so much stuff gathered up and so many neat people I’ve met over the years,” he said.

“I should be happy — I’m retiring — but it was a sad day,” Jennings added.

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