The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Fairfield couple open upscale sports bar The Box in Iowa City

Whitney and Server Kemac describe the story behind Iowa City’s newest bar, The Box.
Madison Frette/The Daily Iowan
A bartender makes a drink for a customer at The Box in Iowa City, on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. The Box is a new sports bar and lounge.

The sticky floors that adorn your traditional college town sports bar are a far cry from what The Box brings to Iowa City.

Although The Box encapsulates the essence of a traditional sports bar-like atmosphere, its owners, married couple Whitney and Server Kemac, said the intimate and dark setting offers an entirely different experience.

A new sports bar, The Box, opened in the old Mosley’s location on Feb. 17.

Whitney and Server Kemac, the current owners of one of Iowa City’s more recent establishments, The Box, explained the tedious process behind creating the modern sports lounge, located at 525 S. Gilbert St.

According to the Iowa City Press Citizen Iowa City bar Mosley’s closed in 2022. The owner, Sean Keller, moved all operations entirely to the North Liberty Mosley’s location, which has since closed for what Keller described as personal reasons.

Server Kemac said their entrepreneurial journey began when they made a permanent move from New York City to Fairfield, Iowa, in 2019.

While Whitney Kemac and the couple’s children were in Fairfield visiting family, Server Kemac remained in New York during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the nightlife in New York City started to shut down, Server advised Whitney to stay in Fairfield, as there was little left for them in New York amid the pandemic’s challenges.

Both Whitney and Server had prior hospitality-related experience, working on cruise lines and various bars and restaurants in Miami and New York, which they said laid the groundwork for their entrepreneurial venture in Iowa City.

Their first endeavor in Fairfield, Iowa, was Green Organic, started in March of 2020 and was a food delivery service. The service offered a menu focused mainly on healthier and organic options, such as Buddha bowls, tacos, soups, salads, and sandwiches.

“She’s a great cook, and with all healthy and organic ingredients, it became extremely successful,” Server Kemac said of Whitney Kemac.

Whitney Kemac said Good Organic caught the interest of Andrew Swanson, also known by his stage name “Djemba Djemba.” Swanson, a record producer originally from Fairfield, has worked with artists like Sia on “Elastic Hearts,” and produced Madonna’s 2015 song “Living for Love.”

Server Kemac said Swanson had acquired an old train station in Fairfield in September of 2020, envisioning it as the perfect place for the Kemac’s next restaurant venue, following the permanent close of their previous delivery service, “Good Organic.”

“We put a kitchen in this old train station, it was truly a wonderful thing,” Server Kemac said. “Andy took a chance on us peak-COVID, which was already a huge risk.”

From there, the Kemacs sparked the beginning of their new live music restaurant concept, called Depot House in September of 2020.

“We served lobster ravioli there, steak,” Server Kemac said. “The food was high-end.”

Depot House showcased local and regional talent, featuring artists like Blake Shaw from Iowa City. However, the Kemacs’ vision extended beyond Fairfield, and they soon started to browse opportunities in Iowa City, permanently closing Depot House.

Whitney Kemac said they were drawn to Mosley’s because of its intimate and distinct ambiance, paying particular mind to its black exterior, and eventually would purchase it on Jan. 16, 2024.

“It was so intimate and perfect, we loved it,” Whitney Kemac said. “It just captured the spirit of Iowa City perfectly, with the black. It had that hawkeye glow, and it stands out, it draws your eyes.”

Whitney Kemac described the naming of The Box as a straightforward and intuitive choice. Reflecting on a broader process of naming a business, she emphasized the critical role of proper branding in capturing a local business’ essence.

Whitney Kemac said the physical structure’s shape had a significant influence in creating the name and overall identity as well.

“It literally looked like a box, and we wanted to incorporate the sports bar and nightlife feel into the name. The Box was just fitting,” Whitney Kemac said.

Aside from its appearance, Server Kemac said they also drew inspiration for the name from a popular nightclub they frequented back in New York, also called The Box.

The Kemacs aimed to redefine the traditional sports bar experience by offering a diverse menu featuring healthier options alongside Turkish dishes, paying tribute to Server Kemac’s heritage, he said.

“I’ve always loved to cook, my mom taught me, and I then taught Whitney how to cook Turkish food, like baklava,” Server Kemac said.

The Box’s menu includes Peruvian Chicken Tacos, Turkish Cigar Rolls, Truffle Mushroom Flatbread, and assorted signature cocktails, including its most popular “Free Throw” cocktail.

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“We wanted to do a sports bar, but we wanted it to be more upscale,” Whitney Kemac said. “It needed to be a chill place where people could come to just hang out.”

Whitney Kemac said they are busiest during happy hour from 5-7 p.m., catering to a vibrant nightlife scene while welcoming former Mosley’s customers.

The Box has already made waves with plans for further expansion, including outdoor seating, a weekly brunch, and more DJ performances. Dion Kranz, a DJ the Kemacs worked with at Depot House, said the Kemacs craft an inviting and family-like environment for their collaborators.

“It’s a very quaint and cool environment. It’s nice because when we show up we don’t have to bring any gear, they have everything set up already,” Kranz said. “We love playing there, it feels kind of like family when you show up, everyone’s very inviting and welcoming.”

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