Success of Kuntry Cookin’ shows the power of community support

Coming from a long line of cooks, it’s no wonder that Destinee Keener-Sargent would end up turning her passion into a successful career, although she never foresaw running and operating her own catering business. 

Her grandmother had her in the garden and kitchen by the age of 3, frying green tomatoes.

Today, Keener-Sargent, born and raised in Muskegon, is winning over the community with her “Kuntry Cookin’.”

Family cookoffs were a regular occurrence at Keener-Sargent’s family reunions, so it’s no surprise that Kuntry Cookin’ — the name that she came up with as an ode to her husband, Kemmie, for his love and support — had won a Start Garden’s 5x5 Night competition in 2017. Still, preparation and timing played a major part in how it all came to fruition.

Keener-Sargent had plans of going away to college after graduating from Muskegon Heights High School in 1998. But, when she got pregnant, she raised her child and then enrolled in Baker College of Muskegon, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in food service.

Besides food and cooking, a love for human services and grassroots efforts also impacted Keener-Sargent from an early age. Raised by her grandmother from the time she was a baby, Keener-Sargent spent most of her life in the local Urban League offices, where her grandmother worked as a youth employment specialist. Keener-Sargent would go on to work in nonprofits, as well. 

Once, while at a job where she was told she’d never be promoted any higher than her position, Keener-Sargent went on to earn her master’s degree in public administration.

Birth of Kuntry Cookin’ Fridays

She went on to gain other positions, working for nonprofits for more than 15 years but, in 2015, Keener-Sargent lost her job and had difficulty finding work. At the same time, her husband was experiencing his own difficulties with finding work. 

Keener-Sargent describes a day that they both sat together on their bed and cried, but finally, she prayed and asked for God to help them learn from their mistakes.

 “From that day forward, our lives just literally changed.”

Keener-Sargent says her husband stepped out for some air and, when he returned, he announced the idea to sell barbecue, which she was strongly against. In spite of her protests, he returned with the meat, so they had no choice but to cook it and see what would happen. In charge of cooking the sides while he barbecued, Keener-Sargent says they used Facebook to promote the upcoming Friday barbecue. It sold out.

As Keener-Sargent continued looking for work and fighting for unemployment benefits, the couple decided to try it again with different menu options — and sold out again that Friday. This continued each time they tried it. They changed the menu options each week based on newspaper and ad sales. Finally, “Kuntry Cookin’ Fridays” was born, and people kept coming back.

Game changer: Shrimp and grits

Keener-Sargent says their decision to serve shrimp and grits completely “changed the game” for them. She says many people at the time had not yet tried the entrée, and some were wary about sampling it. It did not take long, however, for shrimp and grits, along with turkey knuckles, to become menu favorites for Kuntry Cookin’.

Keener-Sargent describes some challenges in those early days, as the couple tried to provide for their four children. This includes being reported to the county’s Health Department for selling meals outside of their home, which they were not aware was an issue. It was then that they decided to take the necessary steps to run a legitimate business.

Destinee Keener-Sargent and her husband Kemmie Sargent, owners of Kuntry Cookin' in Muskegon.

During this time, Keener-Sargent had started attending church regularly at Kingdom Embassy, under the leadership of Pastor Arthur Duren, who told her that anything she did with righteousness would never fail and that God would provide. Keener-Sargent held these words close to her heart as Kuntry Cookin’ began catering and then competed in a 5x5 Night competition in Muskegon with the chance to win $5,000.

The first time around, Kuntry Cookin’ did not win. The couple was due to compete again three months later, but the event was postponed due to a winter storm. Finally, the new date was when the couple was scheduled to travel to Tampa, Florida. After praying on how to move forward, they canceled their trip, and Kuntry Cookin’ ended up winning that 5x5 competition. Combining those winnings and their savings, Kuntry Cookin’ was ready to move their business to a food truck. However, they had difficulty locating one.

In the meantime, the Downtown Muskegon establishment Racquets approached Kuntry Cookin’ about running the kitchen and helping them improve business after the couple had hosted a “Trap Brunch” in three different time slots at the establishment. The Trap Brunch, which consisted of Trap music, games, and, of course, food courtesy of Kuntry Cookin’, brought in more than 200 patrons. 

Keener-Sargent says she did not want the responsibility of running a restaurant and all that came with management, but they agreed to try it for 30 days. Within the first week, sales at Racquets were almost triple what they were the previous year.

Muskegon ‘prayed for us’

Keener-Sargent explains how their presence at Racquets brought out a more diverse patronage, particularly people of color and the LBGTQ+ community. She describes the experience at Racquets this way, “It was like ‘our Cheers.” They went from managing the kitchen to managing the entire restaurant — until COVID-19 hit. The couple continued to successfully keep the food sales coming through August 2020, but the owner decided to sell the building. The couple learned about this two weeks before the establishment was to close for good.

Customers line up at the Kuntry Cookin' food truck in Muskegon.

The timing was perfect, though, as the Sargents found a food truck to purchase in Wisconsin. Keener-Sargent says it was a deal of a lifetime, with even more space than they had while working out of Racquets. After some final improvements, Kuntry Cookin’ held its big food truck premiere in the center of Muskegon Heights, right where Keener-Sargent grew up.

“I love the people in this community. There are some really good people that will keep you encouraged and motivated when you just want to give up,” she says. “Muskegon has upheld us and kept us going and prayed for us.”

With a schedule that has kept them catering daily since May, Keener-Sargent says various organizations and businesses, both local and in Grand Rapids, have invited them to their locations. Besides the shrimp and grits and turkey knuckles, Kuntry Cookin’ is also popular for its “Scribs” egg rolls, lamb chops, Taco Tuesday pop-ups, and salads, including the summer salad with salmon, shrimp, fresh peaches, strawberries, and candied pecans.

Keener-Sargent says future plans for Kuntry Cookin’ include opening a brick-and-mortar building with a tapas menu and a full trailer park to hold food trucks for minorities. She explains that it’s hard for many to save or come up with the means necessary to get their businesses started, from the licensing and so on.

Keener-Sargent says she has spoken to the city of Muskegon and some investors about this idea, and there is excitement from them about this next step.

Follow their Facebook page to find out where they will be and what they will be serving.

Read more articles by Shanika P. Carter.