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Most viewers would not have recognized their faces in the audience of celebrities attending The 65th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. That did not make it any less exciting for the owners of Cathy’s Kitchen, good friends of singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge.
“Cathy is the celebrity cook on all her shows and for her crews. We’re going to the pre-Grammy Clive Davis party on Saturday,” says Jerome Jenkins. The co-owner of Cathy’s Kitchen is keeping a promise he made to his wife before they opened the restaurant in Ferguson, Missouri. “I told her I’m going to put your name in lights. I didn’t know we were going to have to burn down Ferguson to do it,” Jerome adds with an ironic laugh.
Cathy’s Kitchen Protected
Cathy’s Kitchen opened in July 2013. That was about one year before protests erupted in Ferguson over a white police officer killing an unarmed Michael Brown. In November 2014, rioters and looters destroyed commercial buildings and cars when a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Brown.
A video sent to the restaurant’s owners showed protestors protecting Cathy’s Kitchen. “Because of the protestors, we were the only restaurant able to open,” says co-owner Cathy Jenkins. “I had one window broken out by a person they wrestled to the ground, but the entire restaurant was still intact. We were able to open up and serve customers the next day.”
The images of protestors doing something positive prompted CNN’s Anderson Cooper to contact Cathy for a television interview. Media coverage continued to attract attention to the restaurant over the years. Well-known politicians and other recognizable faces showed up after more unrest hit Ferguson following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
“Nancy Pelosi came and had lunch with Cathy. They did an interview on USA Today together. Jerome recalls that Danny Glover showed up. Kevin Costner invited the couple to his “Black or White” movie premiere in St. Louis.
The Jenkins had cemented their place as committed community supporters with over 30 years of public school and youth organization involvement. When some rioters lashed out in response to Floyd’s death, the restaurateurs had police and protestors on their side. “This time, you had protestors and police officers standing together, protecting the restaurant,” Cathy says.
Jerome believes his wife’s kindness made a difference when the Black Lives Matter protests slowed business at the restaurant. “She had a little cart she rolled out in the middle of people screaming and fighting and fed protestors for free. She’d go out there every day, rolling this cart and feeding people. Those people remembered her and took care of her in return.”
Etheridge, the Jenkins’ friend, did her part when the COVID pandemic forced restaurant closures. “She really pushes the restaurant. She loves it. When we re-opened, she came and sang in a live performance at the restaurant,” Jerome comments.
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Prepared for the Pandemic
It is no wonder that neither civil protests, violent unrest, nor pandemic shutdowns could keep Cathy’s Kitchen from succeeding. The owners’ creativity and commitment to the community allowed the restaurant to survive during the worst of times. They put what they learned to good use before mandatory COVID closures.
“When all those things were happening with the rioting, and we were losing sales, we knew we needed to come up with a better way to get the food out,” says Cathy. She credits Jerome for giving them a head start on takeout and delivery options. “We were the first restaurant in Ferguson to get Uber Eats, and they didn’t want to come. This was before the pandemic because we needed extra sales,” Jerome says.
“We had to become more digitized. Today, in Cathy’s Kitchen, we don’t take cash, but we accept all types of digital payments. That includes credit cards, debit cards and CashApp. We also have our own app. We made access to our food available to people in the St. Louis area outside of Ferguson.”
Jerome focused on creating apps and websites for Cathy’s Kitchen to deliver food faster to takeout and delivery customers. When the St. Louis County Health Department ordered the owners to remove paper menus, the couple installed digital kiosks with menus on touch screens.
The couple’s foresight in taking advantage of technology also helps with another problem related to the pandemic: hiring restaurant workers. “That has been a thorn in our sides; trying to get workers. This technology has allowed us to format ourselves with fewer employees,” Cathy acknowledges.
Jerome continues, “We set up an internship with a local high school. We allowed kids to come work because you couldn’t find dishwashers. They get a school credit to learn jobs here.”
More than 50% of the sales at Cathy’s Kitchen are now from deliveries. The restaurant also offers dine-in options for patrons interested in sitting down for the American food Cathy began dreaming of before the homemaker became a restaurant head chef.
Journey to Cathy’s Dream
Before entering restaurant ownership, the Ferguson couple created the C. Jenkins Company with Cathy as president and Jerome as vice president. What was a tie shop evolved into a lucrative, patented chemical used to print images on fabric. “I had a dream. I was talking to God, who told me to try something totally different,” says Jerome. “After the dream, and after God gave me this, I went and got books and used the internet to learn about chemicals.”
The chemical formula Jerome came up with and patented in 1995 got the attention of NASA. The agency still uses the product to fireproof the names and other images printed on the outside of space suits. “We still make it and let people outsource it as well,” says Jerome. “Over the years, I’ve learned how to make different chemicals and applications to protect printed images on space suits from harmful UV rays.”
The self-made inventor’s product went internet viral after renowned quilt artist Caryl Bryer Fallert-Gentry contacted the Jenkins. They donated their chemical to quilters working on one of the 9/11 tribute quilts now displayed at One World Center in New York City. “They sent us a plague thanking us for our contributions, and it is in the restaurant,” Cathy says.
The profits from the C. Jenkins Company funded Cathy’s dream of opening her own restaurant. So in the summer of 2009, the Jenkins and their three children set off on a cross-country road trip to explore American food and meet successful chefs. “When Cathy first wanted to do this, we didn’t know anything about the restaurant business. We decided to plan around this Food Network map of places to go, so we could see, learn and eat our way around America,” Jerome explains.
The trip covered 6,600 miles from San Francisco to Vero Beach in Florida. Cathy would ask to speak to chefs along the way when she fell in love with a dish. “I just asked them how they made the dish. What are the ingredients? They would email the recipes to me,” recalls Cathy. “That is how it evolved, and then you take the recipes, develop them with some changes, and they become your own.”
American Food and Inspired Specials
A map of the family food trip inspired by Food Network restaurant recommendations is painted on one of the walls at Cathy’s Kitchen. The food on her menu is American dishes inspired by the family’s travels.
Cathy continues to put her own spin on menu items. She still serves the gumbo recipe she got from a Memphis chef years ago but has replaced his fresh ground sausage with smoked andouille sausage.
The couple’s vacations often inspire specials. “For our anniversary, we went to Mexico and did a food tour. We had some of the best carnitas tacos. I came back and did a special with those tacos,” she says.
Jerome keeps tabs on the best-selling dishes while Cathy cooks with her restaurant team. The most popular are the Cajun seafood pasta, shrimp and grits, the fried chicken wings and jumbo shrimp combo and the seafood gumbo. The banana pudding cake is the top dessert. Trip Advisor gives the restaurant four and a half stars. It rates four out of five stars on Yelp.
“We’re proud to be a family-owned restaurant business. We want you to feel that when you come in there,” says Jerome. “We know we have the best cook in Cathy.”
Building for the Future
The owners of Cathy’s Kitchen are building the future of their restaurant on more than delicious food. Customers enter the diner-style setting to the sounds of Motown music playing. “We’re taking you on a trip, the blast from the past when you come into Cathy’s Kitchen to taste the food,” says Jerome.
Cathy shares what she wants patrons to experience when they eat at the restaurant. “I like for them to feel the joy and the love that we have. For me, it’s representing my childhood of how I grew up. It’s what I’m trying to share with my customers, that good feeling.”
The couple’s next move will be the opening of Cathy’s Kitchen to Go in St. Louis next summer. It will be housed in the Dellwood neighborhood at the Refuge & Restoration Marketplace. Jerome’s brother Kenneth Jenkins and his sister-in-law Beverly purchased the abandoned strip mall to develop the $16 million project. “It will have a theater for live performances and mental health care services for people in the community. We’re going to be the only restaurant in the complex,” Jerome explains.
The couple’s three children will benefit from the expansion. Their two daughters, Cathy and Micah, and their son, Michael, are already involved in supporting the legacy of Cathy’s Kitchen. “I really would like to say how much help my kids are,” Cathy declares. “When people didn’t want to send their kids to school because of COVID, just having my family working in the restaurant gave us the advantage of staying open. We couldn’t have made it without them.”
Micah manages the restaurant’s current location. The oldest daughter Cathy is a flight attendant, and she is researching airport restaurants for a potential future deal. Michael is still in college but helps his dad with digital projects and does all he can to sell the specialty hot sauces Cathy’s Kitchen produces. “I told the kids I would pay for five restaurants. After that, it is on you. That is what your parents will contribute to your dreams,” Jerome says.
The Ferguson entrepreneurs are thrilled that their children appreciate the benefits of owning a business. Cathy sees they are already starting to have their own visions for the restaurant she and Jerome opened a decade ago. “I really want my children to run it and be successful. I want to leave a legacy where their children can do the same thing so that our hard work passes from generation to generation. Not just the work ethic, but the love of food.”
And as Jerome continues teaching his children the business side of ownership, he recognizes that his kids are getting a head start on building the family name and a future. “We did all this work. Now they can piggyback on it and be a blessing to each other. It’s truly turning out to be much better than I could ever have thought.”