Caterer gains new visibility in Muskegon

Destinee Keener-Sargent and Kemmie Sargent’s journey as foodies just keeps rolling.
Kemmie Sargent, left, and Destinee Keener-Sargent

Destinee Keener-Sargent and Kemmie Sargent’s journey as foodies just keeps rolling.

Three years ago, the husband-and-wife team started their Muskegon Heights home-based catering business, Kuntry Cookin’, after Keener-Sargent lost her nonprofit job, which had been a significant source of income for the couple and their four children.

While Keener-Sargent looked for a new position, the family began cooking and selling dinner by the plate out of their home using a menu based on sale items from their local grocery store.

A year later, Sargent was sideswiped by a 15-passenger van while riding his motorcycle. A welder by trade, he could no longer lift the parts because of injuries to his shoulders and couldn’t return to work.

Seeing no other option, the pair doubled down on building up their food sideline into a full-fledged catering operation.

They advertised their business as offering “a little bit of everything,” from Jamaican to soul food to Creole to barbecue.

Outgrowing their home operation due to demand, they started renting space at Kitchen 242, a commercial kitchen at the Muskegon Farmers Market in downtown Muskegon, which allowed them to cater events for up to 300 people.

In January, the couple won Start Garden’s 5×5 Night, receiving $5,000 to put toward their plan of opening a food truck.

“That was the goal overall — to get a food truck so we could be mobile throughout the city,” Keener-Sargent said. “It just so happened the day that we were going to look at a food truck that fit our budget, that had everything in it we needed, the guy sold it to the people that had responded before us, just out of fairness.

“Our hopes were almost crushed. It was like, ‘This is crazy. We now have the money to buy a truck, but we just cannot find a truck anywhere.’”

That very day, they spoke to Ron Madison, owner of Racquets Bar & Grill, at 446 W. Western Ave. in downtown Muskegon, and he told them he was tired of running the kitchen part of his establishment and was considering closing it down and just keeping the bar side open unless someone could step in and help run the kitchen.

“He made us an offer that we just couldn’t refuse,” Keener-Sargent said.

On Memorial Day weekend, Kuntry Cookin’ officially took over the kitchen at Racquets. The joint — which was recently renovated — occupies prime real estate between the city’s L.C. Walker Arena and the Holiday Inn Muskegon-Harbor.

The food menus have been rereleased with a new set of eclectic offerings — including top-seller Scribz Egg Rolls, named after Mr. Scrib’s, a favorite Muskegon pizza chain. The menus have been rebranded with a new logo under the name Kuntry Cookin’ on Tap at Racquets.

“Me and my husband are working with the general manager and just kind of rebirthing Racquets overall with the blessing from Ron because he knows we have his interests at heart, and so he’s trusted us with the vision that we see for the vicinity,” Keener-Sargent said.

That vision includes trying to bring more racial and ethnic diversity into what is currently a very white downtown, Keener-Sargent said. They are seeing that goal come to fruition, thanks to her deep ties in the community.

“We’ve just been so surprised by the overwhelming support from all cultures in Muskegon. Muskegon tends to be a ‘crab barrel’ kind of town, and it’s hard to have people support you, especially if you’re doing the same thing as them.

“But this community as a whole has loved on us, and they’re the reason why we are what we are and why we chose to keep going to this day.”

Keener-Sargent said the couple still is working toward buying and opening a food truck with a revolving menu that will change based on what’s affordable.

“The ultimate goal overall is to add a nonprofit where we are able to have many food trucks positioned throughout the city to be able to feed our food-deprived neighbors or students throughout the community — those who have limited financial means — for free,” she said.

Keener-Sargent said she envisions those “mini-food trucks” will employ returning felons who worked as chefs in the prison kitchens.

“I believe everybody deserves a second chance,” she said.

“It would be just such a great partnership for men or women to be able to redeem themselves right in their community. Kids would be able to see them redeeming themselves, plus get fed. Most of the nonprofits I worked in (were) dealing with homelessness, and so I’ve pretty much seen it all here in Muskegon. The kids really hold a special place in my heart because they can’t help their situation, and a good meal makes a difference in their lives.”

This article first appeared in the Grand Rapids Business Journal, a sister publication of Grand Rapids Magazine.

Photo: Kemmie Sargent, left, and Destinee Keener-Sargent. Courtesy Kuntry Cookin’.

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