Aaron and Felicia Kent—A Journey of Faith

By on October 1, 2013
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By MARILYN TINNIN

The sign out front reads Kent’s Cajun Kitchen, and in smaller letters beneath, “Authentic Cajun Cuisine.” The cuisine is not the only thing that is authentic inside this small café. Aaron and Felicia Kent are the entrepreneurial young couple who took a wholehearted leap of faith back in 2011 by giving up their secure day jobs—with full benefits—using their personal savings as capital and jumping into the restaurant business. Why would they do something so risky?

Well, the short answer is because God told them to. Felicia realized a long time ago that God did indeed have “plans for a hope and a future,” (Jeremiah 29:11) for her. She had seen Him move mountains and do the, if not impossible, very unlikely in her life—and she was no lukewarm believer. Here was the girl who had grown up in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. If God had rescued her from the future she could so easily have had there, she knew He could do any unlikely thing He wanted to do with her life. She was ready, willing, and able to obey.

Felicia flashes her big smile as an elementary student.

Felicia had learned the art of New Orleans cuisine at the knees of her mother and grandmother. She loved to cook like some people love to paint or write poetry. It was her creative outlet and the hobby she turned to when she was stressed. Never had she considered turning that passion into a vocation—at least not until a sleepless night in November of 2010 when that familiar still voice spoke to her heart about starting a catering business.

Felicia was certain God had told her to do it “now.” When she almost timidly mentioned it to her husband, Aaron, the next morning, he did not think she was crazy at all. Despite his secure job at Lowe’s, a 401(k) plan, and the goal of becoming store manager, he was on board. They agreed that they could not “steal” time from their regular jobs to pursue this, but the perfect time was at hand to seek more confirmation.

It was only a week until Thanksgiving. Felicia, who was executive director of the Owens Health and Wellness Center at Tougaloo College, knew that she had this window of time during Thanksgiving break to launch this venture. In three short days, they applied for the required business license, a Taxpayer ID Number, came up with a name, started a Facebook page, registered domain names, created flyers advertising their services, and purchased five electric fryers (an act of faith)! Menu options were few, but they were familiar recipes Felicia could almost do in her sleep: fried turkey, gumbo, and potato salad. They immediately got 47 orders.

Aaron and Felicia on their wedding day in Las Vegas, July 27, 2009.

Aaron and Felicia on their wedding day in Las Vegas, July 27, 2009.

Aaron with his mother, Shonda Spikes, and grandmother, Elvira Spikes.

Aaron with his mother, Shonda Spikes, and grandmother, Elvira Spikes.

Aaron, who is her partner, soul mate and supportive husband, is quick to point to Felicia’s tenacity as a big factor in their success, but he adds that the greatest reason the business took off was they made an intentional decision to fast, pray, and wait for God’s leading. There was no business plan at the time. Felicia and Aaron were not even sure what would come next. They were certain, however, that God had opened a door and they were going to follow Him through it.

Felicia’s Roots

Born to a single mother in the infamous Desire projects in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, statistics would say she was doomed from the start. A little research on the Internet reveals that children born to single moms in the ghetto have a “slim to none” chance of escaping the same fate. The Desire projects, 262 poorly constructed apartment buildings, which began to fall apart almost as soon as they were completed, housed about 13,000 people during 1970s. The community was a breeding ground of despair and hopelessness.

In their Desire Street apartment, Felicia’s early attempt at baking was a birthday cake for her mom. Felicia holds her little sister Latoya while other siblings look on.

In their Desire Street apartment, Felicia’s early attempt at baking was a birthday cake for her mom. Felicia holds her little sister Latoya while other siblings look on.

All around Felicia were poverty, violence, and crime. Gunshots were a common sound after dark. Two of Felicia’s brothers were murdered. Young girls rarely completed high school—choosing instead to have babies and thus perpetuate the generational cycle of poverty.

Felicia was the oldest of 10 children, and the family existed on a government check of $501.00 per month. She had no relationship with her father, but at every critical juncture in her formative years God provided Christian men in her life, each one a mentor as well as a father figure. Her minister, her high school principal, an uncle—all sources of great encouragement—shared a common message with Felicia again and again. “Education is your ticket out of here. You can do better.”

 

Aaron and Felicia visit Felicia’s childhood church in the Lower Ninth Ward, where Pastor Jenneford still leads the congregation!

Aaron and Felicia visit Felicia’s childhood church in the Lower Ninth Ward, where Pastor Jenneford still leads the congregation!

And it was at her church, Greater New Home Missionary Baptist Church, that Pastor Walsdorf Jenneford, taught her Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” That became her life verse and continues to be the first thought that comes to her no matter the challenge. She laughs that her friends and family would call her a “fighter,” but actually it is the reality of Philippians 4:13 that fuels her energy and her determination.

Education may have been her ticket, but even so, getting that education was not exactly a piece of cake. At George Washington Carver High School, there were not enough books to go around; therefore, students were not allowed to take them home for study. Staying around after school to use the textbooks was not an option either since Felicia had to get home to take care of her younger siblings. They were a close-knit group, and Felicia naturally assumed the role of cook, teacher, and caregiver. Whenever the responsibilities felt overwhelming on her little teenaged shoulders, her high school principal would tell her, “Felicia, you have to be able to see beyond these bricks. You must be able to see beyond the projects.” He helped her believe there was a world beyond the ghetto, and if she would just hold on and finish school, he would help her get into college with a scholarship. She did, and he did.

A very proud assortment of siblings, cousins, grandmother, mother, and Rev. and Mrs. Jennesford came to Felicia’s graduation from Jackson State University.

Felicia enrolled at Jackson State University with a full academic scholarship. She flourished with good grades and honors graduating in 1993 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology, Criminal Justice & Correctional Services. She immediately enrolled in graduate school, graduating in 1996 with a master’s degree in Urban Affairs, Criminology & Justice Services. Her dream was to design and implement successful programs for at-risk youth. This was an area she knew upside down and inside out, and she yearned with all her heart to help others escape the ghetto just as she had.

Career

For the next 15 years, that is exactly what she did, working her way up to the position of Executive Director of the Tougaloo College Owens Health and Wellness Center. Administering community health programs in underserved areas brought her a great deal of recognition and a bevy of awards. But perhaps the personal satisfaction of helping others was the best reward Felicia could imagine. She was featured in publications from The Clarion Ledger to The New York Times and interviewed on television and radio stations. The scope of her programs included the elderly as well as at-risk youth, and as she helped others, she was also able to help her family back in New Orleans.

Felicia W. Kent, President Beverly W. Hogan, and Felicia's mother, Audrey M. Whittington, at Tougaloo College Founders' Day October 2010.

Felicia W. Kent, President Beverly W. Hogan, and Felicia’s mother, Audrey M. Whittington, at Tougaloo College Founders’ Day October 2010.

During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the levees broke around New Orleans, the remnant of Felicia’s family sought refuge at Felicia’s home in Jackson. Several of them soon realized they had nothing to return to, and with Felicia’s encouragement, they made Jackson their home.

From Catering to a Brick-and-Mortar Business!

After the success of the Thanksgiving catering adventure in 2010, Aaron and Felicia began to get requests for a Christmas menu. Felicia would have a two-week break from her job at Tougaloo, and so they dove in once again. Between their word-of-mouth customers and their Facebook page, the number of orders increased significantly.

They were still working out of their home in Madison, and as customers came to pick up their orders, most sat down and visited. Aaron and Felicia loved the personal interaction and the conversation, and they sensed that the comfortable and welcoming atmosphere in their home was something their customers valued. That was significant.

In the backs of their minds, they could see the framework of a food business with a spiritual dimension. So they asked God for clarity.

It was in early 2011 that a sermon by their pastor, Joel Sims at Word of Life, left both Aaron and Felicia with the strong sense God was pushing them to step out in faith, to take this business to the next level—full time. The scripture was Matthew 17:20, “…if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

As a “reminder,” he passed out little packets of mustard seeds with the scripture attached. Felicia and Aaron knew this message was for them, and so they began to fast and pray. The only thing they knew they should not do was to borrow money. Even so, how irresponsible would it be to take cash from a 401(k), to use their savings, to jump into the restaurant business in this totally unconventional manner? On the other hand, they were speaking to the God who parted the sea, healed the blind and the lame—the one about whom the scriptures say, “Is anything too hard for God?” (Genesis 18:14). They knew what He was leading them to do, but it was a little scary. Did God really know about the catering business? Hilarious question.

Felicia gave the commencement address to the 2010 Carver Senior High School graduates at UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans. This was especially meaningful to Felicia since these students had survived Katrina.

Felicia gave the commencement address to the 2010 Carver Senior High School graduates at UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans. This was especially meaningful to Felicia since these students had survived Katrina.

Oh, but He was asking for way more than just catering out of their house. Isn’t that so like Him?

After their third successful catering endeavor on Super Bowl weekend, right after the “Mustard Seed” sermon a week or so earlier, Aaron and Felicia got a call from a tenant at Colony Crossing, asking them if they might be interested in assuming her lease and opening a restaurant in that space.

Up until this point, their capital expenditure had been limited and very safe. They had discussed where the catering might lead, but in their minds, the thought of a restaurant was a long way off.

This was exciting and scary all at the same time. They had been fasting and praying. So was this their answer? Was God moving this fast? Did they want Him to move this fast? If so, were they willing to jump in and really do this full time—cutting their safety net of full-time, and full-benefits, jobs?

Ultimately, nothing else made sense except to obey. As Felicia quotes scripture, “To obey is better than sacrifice,” (1 Samuel 15:22).

And so they did. Wholeheartedly and without looking back. It was very hard emotionally to leave jobs they were both so happy with, to leave people they loved working with, and to start something completely on faith.

God’s Provision—Hands-On and Personal

Aaron and Felicia resigned their jobs in March of 2011 and planned to open their new restaurant in July. Their first, self-imposed assignment was to read every book and article ever written on the restaurant business. Preparing and selling recipes you know is vastly different from operating a full-scale restaurant, and nobody knew that better than Aaron and Felicia. They knew they had to be quick studies and committed students.

When Felicia received a call from entrepreneur, business guru, and premier restaurateur Jeff Good, he was seeking new clients for his Dollars and Sense Creative Consulting business. Never mind that Kent’s Cajun Kitchen was a potential competitor with his restaurants, he was interested in offering his expertise. And he meant it.

Another God thing. Jeff asked such questions as, “Have you or any of your family ever been in the restaurant business? Have you ever owned a business at all?” Felicia was less intimidated by the questions and her own inexperience, than how grateful she was for his advice! They became fast friends, and for Felicia and Aaron, Jeff’s friendship was just one more indication that God was behind this leap of faith.

Even today, after more than a year of success, Felicia and Aaron say that if they ever have a question about something, they pick up the phone and call Jeff. He continues to be a great source of encouragement for them.

Kent and Felicia celebrate Kent’s Cajun Kitchen’s first anniversary with their pastors, Marcus and Paige Whitman, of Word of Life.

Aaron and Felicia celebrate Kent’s Cajun Kitchen’s first anniversary with their pastors, Marcus and Paige Whitman, of Word of Life.

When Kent’s Cajun Kitchen opened its doors on July 11, 2012, the city of Madison turned out in mass. Jeff Good was on site all day long to observe and offer suggestions for smooth flow of operations. Felicia still tears up when she recounts all the ways God provided for them from day one. The spoken prayers from their Word of Life pastors and Felicia’s uncle, Pastor Edward Simmons, who had driven down from Missouri for the ribbon cutting, so lifted the spirits of everyone there. It was clear that this restaurant was about more than food!

Six months into the business, however, Felicia went into the hospital for a surgery that was expected to be a fairly routine one. It was anything but, as she experienced some highly unusual respiratory complications and ended up literally fighting for her life. The recuperation time, which should have kept her away from the restaurant for about four weeks, ended up with a stint in the Intensive Care Unit followed by three months of recovery time. The restaurant remained closed during that time.

Although they had their moments of anxiety, they experienced God’s presence in a deep way. Felicia realized that as much as she had considered this business to be God’s property, she had not given it to Him totally. There was still a lesson to be learned. God is more than able to handle every care.

Aaron says he learned in a new way, that the only certain thing any of us have in this world is our faith in Christ and His ability to meet our needs. The constant prayers offered up on Felicia’s behalf kept the couple at peace, and there came a moment of real relinquishment when they surrendered the future entirely into the hands of the God who had led them so far.

The restaurant reopened in April. The customers came back bringing new customers with them.

The foundation of their business plan involves ownership and stewardship. They see themselves as stewards of God’s blessings, and they make it a priority to walk that out by giving back, both financially and by volunteering and sponsoring charities and causes in their community. As Aaron says, “We really want to be able to give more and more with each year.” Felicia remains committed to helping the at-risk youth as she and Aaron volunteer at Word of Life’s Poindexter Outreach Center, Stewpot, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Mississippi, to name a very few of about 15 organizations they routinely help.

Aaron & Felicia at Ken't Cajun Kitchen.

Aaron & Felicia at Ken’t Cajun Kitchen.

This fall they are leading a “Life Group” as an outreach of Word of Life. They will be teaching a couple’s cooking class at the restaurant. “Cooking with Love” brings couples together in the kitchen, but they will be also incorporate a spiritual dimension to their tips on preparing healthy meals and communicating through cooking demonstrations. As Felicia explains, “Kent’s Cajun Kitchen is not just a restaurant. We want it to be an experience where people like to come, not just for the food, but because it is a place of peace.” It is that.

From the Bible verse, “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed…” painted in large letters above the tables to the huge corkboard where customers leave their business cards, the place just shouts, “Welcome. We’re glad you stopped by!” Felicia’s recipes are to die for, but there is so much more than food being served here. There is some serious food for the soul to be had. But don’t take my word for it. Go experience it for yourself!

Kent’s Cajun Kitchen is open Tuesday – Saturday for lunch and dinner. Visit www.kentscajunkitchen.com to view the menu. You can also find them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Kentscajunkitchen. Call 601.427.5065 for more information.