Rondo Fernandez is the premier Ocala restaurateur behind Elevation 89, Ocala’s new airport eatery. He and his three partners have brought to our airport a quality restaurant you would expect to find in much more developed airport facilities. Undoubtedly, this just marks the beginning of the development of the Ocala International Airport. If the World Equestrian Center is to thrive and trigger Ocala’s evolution into a global destination, a high capacity, state of the art airport is a prerequisite.
Rondo’s story is one of success, failure and redemption. Here we borrow from the story originally written by John Sotomayor for Elevate Magazine to introduce you to this amazing man:
Elevation 89 – Rondo’s Roots
Rondo’s parents immigrated from Cuba. His family called Miami home until 1990. That year they migrated to the Big Scrub in the Ocala National Forest. Of course, life was quite different there, a major culture shock for young Rondo.
While he attended Lake Weir High School, Rondo didn’t graduate. To that point, he had spent his entire life in the restaurant business. His mother was a restaurant worker. Instead of hiring a babysitter, she would take young Rondo to work with her.
“She would leave me in the dry storage closet, and I’d come out and start bussing people’s tables at 5 or 6 years old”, Rondo remembered fondly. “That’s how I started. I developed a passion for it. I love the interaction with people and that every day is different.”
Road to Elevation 89 – Rondo’s First Venture
Rondo quickly fell in love with the business. “I knew this was what I wanted to do, and it is the only thing I know how to do, really,” he said.
He opened Rondo’s, his first restaurant, soon after leaving a serving job. It was located on State Road 40. Two years later he opened a second location across from the Paddock Mall. Shortly there after he added catering. The two restaurants had the same modern Blues theme Mojo Grill has today and were very successful.
On The Road To Elevation 89 – Rondo’s Fall
“Then I lost both restaurants,” Rondo recounted. Reckless living caught up with him. “Anyone can Google search it,” Rondo said matter-of-factly. “It is pretty much public information. I allowed a certain culture in my restaurants. I lost focus on what was important, so they evolved more into bars than a restaurants. But I learned from my mistakes. The lesson was a turning point for me.” The loss of his businesses, self described as hitting “rock bottom,” helped Rondo realize he was not who he wanted to be. It was that realization that caused him to determine to turn his life around. Then, when he was let go as coach of his son’s football team, he sank even lower. “That knocked me down to my knees,” Rondo said.
Having realized that he lost everything, he turned to what really was important to him, his family. Faith came later. “I was not a Christian at that time”, he admits.
But Rondo never lost his drive. Therefore he became more committed than ever to turning his life around for the sake of his family. He would travel a different route to ensure his wife, Toby, and four kids, Ronnie, Amber, Cane, and Soriana, had the security they deserved. So he went back to waiting tables, a “very humbling experience.”
The First Mojo Grill Location Opens
In 2009, a friend who believed in him lent Rondo enough money to open Mojo Grill. Rondo recalls that ironically, this friend was the kind of person who could have motivated him to believe in God. But he left that decision to Rondo. He described the friend as a “God fearing man” who maintained his faith despite losing a son to an accident. However, Rondo was not yet ready to have faith. He could not comprehend how a loving God could take the son of a faithful, devout Christian away from him.
Nevertheless, Rondo seized the opportunity and worked hard, committed not to repeat old mistakes. As a result, Mojo Grill became the Ocala institution it is today. In 2013, he and a manager were arguing about faith and Christianity. The manager told Rondo he believed in God “just in case.” If he was right, then he might one day enter heaven. If he was wrong, then at least he lived a good life. That reasoning made sense to Rondo, so he began a superficial relationship with God, just in case.
The Road To Elevation 89 – Eye Opener
Rondo’s greatest eye-opener was becoming reacquainted with a former friend. Together, the two once frequently partied to the extreme. According to Rondo, the friend had gone “off the deep end” so much that Rondo at times mourned him as if he was already gone. However, when Rondo saw him again, the friend was remarkably different. He had a “glow about him.”
He looked great and his family life was secure. Rondo asked him what he was doing now. The friend replied that he was now the pastor of a church. “There was no way this guy could be the pastor of a church”, Rondo laughingly recalled thinking. So Rondo mocked him a bit until tragedy struck the Fernandez family. As Rondo coped with his tragedy, the friend was at his side every moment. “He didn’t share the gospel with me”, Rondo said, “but I could see the promise and the peace in his heart.”
Then Rondo began attending the friend’s church. Soon he noticed the effect this had on his kids. They were no longer fighting in the back seat of the car. Instead, they were opening doors for people. They were listening to Rondo and Toby. “Our Sundays were just…better”, he said.
The Recognition Of Change
Was it simply because they spent the day as a family? Was it because Rondo did not wake up hung over since he had to be at church? Was it because of a combination of both factors? Of course, Rondo soon realized that there much more involved.
“I didn’t believe in Christ yet,” Rondo recalled, “but I began to open my heart.”
Then Rondo began living his life by the credo: “What Would Jesus Do?”
In all circumstance, Rondo would ask himself that question. For eight months Rondo lived life as a Christian. Up to that point, he thought he had already ruined his life. However, faith brought with it new hope. While he set out to turn life around for his wife and kids, he had no idea how successfully he would do so. To be sure, he wanted to give his family the quality of life they deserved. But Rondo Fernandez had no idea what God really had planned for him.
One Last Binge
Then Rondo took a step back. He thought he had done enough, that he had earned enough “Christian points” to go out with his friends and in his own words, “blow the carbon out so to speak.”
So Rondo and his friends got hammered. When he returned home, his 10-year-old son, who had never seen Rondo drunk before, asked him what was wrong. The next morning, Rondo awoke feeling ashamed. In his former life, he would have felt he had earned the binge. However, this time was different. He was indeed ashamed.
He attended church that day, and approached the altar, something he had never done before. At 39 years of age, Rondo knelt at the altar and asked God to show him the way. He had finally made the commitment and given his heart to God.
“My life is not perfect by any means, but I know that He is perfect, and he has a perfect plan for me,” Rondo said with absolution in his voice. So the road to Elevation 89 continued.
Elevation 89, A Fine Addition To Ocala’s Airport
To read all of John Sotomayor’s story about Rondo Fernandez, please click here. Additionally, to learn more about Elevation 89, an important step towards making our airport truly international, enjoy reading the articles below:
Elevation 89, the Ocala International Airport Terminal’s newest restaurant, officially opened their doors over the weekend. It is undoubtedly the first step in the evolution of our “international” airport. Learn more at OCALA-NEWS.COM
Attention diners, the new restaurant at the Ocala International Airport terminal is preparing for take-off. To be sure, Elevation 89 at the Ocala Airport is a great addition to Ocala’s dining scene. Learn more at OCALA GAZETTE.
With the leg room of the aisle seat and the view of the window seat, every chair and bar stool at Elevation 89, a new American Cuisine restaurant in the Ocala International Airport, offers panoramic views and comfort. Learn more at WWW.OCALA.COM.
“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.” – Chef Anthony Bourdain
Life is about more than the comforts of the home you live in. It is about adventurously exploring your innermost being, your community and the world.
Andrew Kruglanski, MBA, ABD, Broker