A life-saving business: How Kuntry Cookin’ is bringing a world of positive change (and a whole lot of flavor) to Muskegon

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Destinee Sargent’s table is swamped with people: people shouting hello, people asking about her children, people grabbing cups of her shrimp and grits and turkey knuckles. People coming back for seconds—and then wondering if a third time is too many.

The answer? “Eat it all!” Sargent laughs as a man scoops up the last cup.

For the first time, Sargent and her business, Kuntry Cookin’, which she co-founded with her husband Kemmie Sargent, are at Monday’s Taste and See event, an annual dinner tour that the nonprofit Community enCompass holds to showcase the work being done by local restaurants, youth, community leaders, and the nonprofit in Muskegon’s core city neighborhoods.

For the tour, Sargent is set up at one of her favorite places in the city: Sacred Suds, a community center at the southern edge of the McLaughlin neighborhood that offers neighbors laundry and shower facilities, as well hot and cold meals provided daily by volunteers from area churches. It’s the perfect place for Sargent to be, not only because she loves its mission but because it’s much like her own business: a space filled with warmth and friendliness and empathy. And a lot of good food.

“I’ve been working in the community since I was a young adult; I’ve had the opportunity to serve senior citizens, teenagers, youth, the homeless,” Sargent, who grew up in Muskegon, said of her time spent in leadership positions at area nonprofits.

“Then, I lost my job,” she continued. “I had a Master’s degree, but I could not find a job to save my life.”

That was one of the hardest weeks: Sargent no longer had a job, and her husband, who had owned his own landscaping business and had been working factory jobs while going to school to be a welder, discovered he couldn’t get a previous felony expunged. He had been working hard to get rid of it, his wife explained, in order to land his dream, “a shirt and tie job.”

“We were so upset at how things were turning out,” she said. “I started to go into a serious depression. We were trying to hold each other up at that period in our lives. Then, my husband came out with this idea: he said, ‘We’re going to barbecue. I said, ‘No, we’re not.’”

Her husband ended up winning that argument—and, a little more than two years ago, Kuntry Cookin’ was born. The business has gone on to be wildly popular, and, from the very beginning, the Sargents have sold out of the meals they cook each Friday from their home in Muskegon Heights.

The business, Sargent said, has “literally saved my life.”

“We have an amazing community behind us,” she said. “I cannot express how humbled and grateful I am for the amount of support our community has given us for Kuntry Cookin’. Our people have rallied behind us, and I get emotional with this: they rallied behind us even when we didn’t see this as a life for ourselves.”

A sign that stands on the Kuntry Cookin’ table during the Taste and See tour.

But back to the beginning, when Kemmie Sargent was trying to convince his wife to help him barbecue.

“He said, ‘Do the sides, and I’ll take care of the meat, and I said, ‘I told you, we’re not going to do this,’” she said. “But, we did. We advertised on Facebook what we’re doing just a day and a half before we started, and we sold out by 4:30 that first day. We tried it again, and we sold out again. We said we’d do it one more time. And we sold out again.”

That income meant the couple were able to pay their immediate bills, and continue to provide for their children.

“That was what we were most worried about, supporting our super active children who play every single sport,” Sargent said of their four children.

Since that first Friday, the Sargents have sold anywhere between 100 and 200 meals each week, ranging from Creole and Cajun dishes to Jamaican and Italian fare, plus crawfish boils, lamb chops and a whole lot more. Their menu changes each week, and the two chefs like to “infuse different cultures in our foods.” While the foods are often representative of people and places from around the globe, the ingredients themselves are local. The couple uses food from their own garden, as well as from the Muskegon Farmers Market and area butchers.

The Sargents cook anywhere from 100 to 200 meals for customers every Friday. Photo courtesy of Kuntry Cookin’

For both Destinee and Kemmie Sargent, this love for food, and especially for locally grown food, stems from their childhoods.

“I learned to cook from my grandmother; the first thing I learned to cook was a fried green tomato,” Sargent said. “I come from a family of a long line of cooks. You have to see my family cookbook—my uncle creates a family cookbook every two to three years. It has our family pictures and stories about our family and why this recipe came about. We’re huge foodies in our family.”

Her husband’s culinary knowledge began in his hometown in Arkansas.

“His mother was the school’s cook, and his grandparents were incredible cooks as well,” she said. “They hunted for all their food and grew all their vegetables. Both his parents died before he was 16, and he ended up having to take care of his younger siblings, including cooking for them.”

This close relationship to food, and a deep understanding of where food comes from, has led to an approach that focuses on local and waste-free meals.

“A lot of people won’t buy a bruised apple, but, for me, I’ve learned to appreciate food, and especially fresh food,” Sargent said. “I’m not bothered by things like that. Food waste is major with us; I do not like to waste food. Our approach to fresh food over bagged, and even canned or frozen, food is totally different because we know the difference in taste and texture, how it’s different when you’ve grown it yourself.”

From food trucks to supporting city youth, plans for the future

Building upon their current success, the Sargents are planning to expand their business in the coming years. First, they want to raise enough funding to purchase a food truck, with which they’re planning to station themselves at different points throughout the city.

“We don’t want to be in just one place,” Sargent said. “We want to rotate so everyone can get to us.”

After they buy a food truck, the owners plan to secure a brick-and-mortar location for a food prep kitchen—both for themselves and for food vendors throughout the community. The communal food center will provide space and information for entrepreneurs facing significant barriers to entering the culinary world, including steep food licensing costs. Additionally, it will serve as an educational space that will provide classes for community members, including for children who are often cooking for themselves and siblings.

“We know so many food vendors, and they make really good food, but they don’t have the means or the know-how to get themselves out there,” Sargent said. “We want to give them that opportunity, as well as to be able to educate young parents to cook food that comes out of the garden or how to stretch that $120 in food stamps into meals for you and your kid.”

Customers line up to try food from Kuntry Cookin’.

Then, the Sargent family hopes to purchase a number of small food trucks to use throughout the city. For these trucks, the couple hopes to work with ex-felons looking to rebuild their lives.

“We want to hire ex-felons with no child misconduct charges, but who may have been selling drugs and want to get back into the community and make up for what they did,” Sargent said.

With these smaller trucks, the couple aims to provide free food for children in need.

“There are so many of our children who are hungry, who are struggling,” she said.

Supporting entrepreneurs in Muskegon Heights and beyond

Part of a large network of entrepreneurs in Muskegon Heights, the Sargents’ story is emblematic of a growing group of people who are finding innovative ways to address joblessness and build an impressive business landscape in the area. And while there is extensive support within the Muskegon Heights community for these companies, small business owners, and especially small business owners of color, often face daunting barriers to success in the region—including limited access to capital to launch and maintain businesses. According to the most recent federal statistics, there were 795 minority-owned firms in the city of Muskegon in 2012, out of 2,436 total firms. That means that while people of color make up 43 percent of the city’s population, they represent just 32.6 percent of the businesses. That trend continues throughout Muskegon County: there were 11,566 total firms in 2012, the most recent year for which there are statistics, with 2,006 of those operations being owned by people of color.

These barriers faced by community members, however, can be torn down—but in order for that to happen, economic development and government organizations in the county can, and must, open more doors for entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color, Muskegon Heights Mayor Kimberley Sims said.

“One of the main problems I see with small businesses is access to capital, even just to get a business started,” Sims said. “I don’t see large manufacturing coming back; I see more entrepreneurs popping up. That’s how the economy will come back is through entrepreneurship. How do we move things forward? How do we fund that?”

“Access to capital is huge, as is knowledge and know-how of business itself,” the mayor continued. “A lot of times in minority communities you don’t have that.”

To address this, Sims said she would love to see a business incubator (think something akin to the Muskegon Innovation Hub) open in Muskegon Heights. Locating an incubator within Muskegon Heights itself would address a number of barriers entrepreneurs face, including transportation to the hub: it’s a lot easier to set up shop at an incubator when it’s right there in your neighborhood. For individuals already swamped with job and family responsibilities, “meeting people where they’re at” would be huge for current and would-be entrepreneurs, Sims said.

Additionally, the mayor stressed that she would like to see already existing economic development organizations coming into Muskegon Heights more frequently.

“Organizations need to be willing to go outside of their own geographical boundaries,” Sims said. “As a whole, Muskegon County is only going to be as vibrant as each municipality, each city, is. If we can’t figure out how to build an equitable economic mobility in Muskegon Heights, the county is going to suffer.”

“Cultivating that entrepreneurial spirit that many of the people in communities like ours have and giving it the right environment to grow will be beneficial for all,” she continued. “Trying to create that environment is what we’re in the process of doing now.”

Currently, the city of Muskegon Heights partners with a number of different organizations, including GROW and SCORE, both of which provide free business support and consultations for area entrepreneurs. GROW also provides business loans for individuals who can have difficulty accessing traditional bank loans.

“Many times, we don’t qualify for standard commercial loans; even some of the small business association loans will be difficult,” Sims said. “That’s why programs like GROW work a little better because it’s nontraditional funding.”

One of the locally-sourced salads that the Sargents make for their business. Photo courtesy of Kuntry Cookin’.

This kind of nontraditional support for growing businesses would lead to entrepreneurs not only being able to launch their own companies, but would lead to the evolution of a strong, community-minded network of business owners—like the Sargents, the mayor said.

“Her heart is in that food,” Sims said of Destinee Sargent. “It just makes your heart happy. There’s a whole level of consciousness as far as using local ingredients; that is a concept within our community that is well respected. She’s young, vibrant and passionate; she has all the qualities to make it. Every Friday that she’s cooking, I’m buying.”

A culinary shakeup: Changing the way we eat in Muskegon

With all of this—the growth of entrepreneurship and the support for minority business owners—there is the opportunity to “bring different flavors and tastes” to Muskegon’s culinary landscape, Sargent said.

“There’s so much more that the city can have; you can get tired of the omelettes and the steak and the potatoes,” she said. “You want something different sometimes, and there are people who can do those different meals. We’re trying to attract tourists to Muskegon, and people like to eat when they come in. If these small vendors could showcase themselves, that would add to the tourism.”

Sargent pointed to the explosion of restaurants in nearby Grand Rapids, including the growth of restaurants featuring cuisines from around the globe and emphasized something similar can happen in Muskegon.

“People are wanting flavor,” she said. “There’s room at the table for everybody.”

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Photos by Anna Gustafson, unless otherwise noted.

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