KEVIN AND STACEY JENNINGS: Family values and restaurant success

Kevin and Stacey Jennings at their North Hills restaurant, Coquette.

by Andrea Weigl

photographs by Lissa Gotwals

Stacey Jennings sets platters of mashed potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts, spinach salad and coq au vin blanc on the dining room table and calls to her children.

“We need to eat,” she says. “It’s on the table. It is going to get cold.”

It’s a typical weeknight at the Jenningses’ Raleigh home. Stacey is serving a home-cooked meal. Her husband Kevin is opening a bottle of wine. Their children, Campbell, 8, and Wade, 5, are romping around the spacious ranch home the family just moved into near North Hills, and Buster, their French mastiff, is barking from the backyard.

This is a scene from their sweet, successful life, which started almost 20 years ago when Kevin and Stacey met at an Atlanta restaurant and came together over their dream to own a restaurant of their own.

They have succeeded and then some. Their company, Urban Food Group, owns five restaurants in Raleigh and Charlotte and does $12 million in annual sales. The couple plans to take their most successful concept, Vivace, to other states. First stop will likely be Tampa, Fla.

“Our goal is to get to $20 million in the next two to three years,” Kevin says.

Despite their success and the increasing demands of their business, the couple hasn’t lost sight of what grounds them: their family, and the rituals that honor those ties.

And so here they are on a Monday night negotiating with their son over Brussels sprouts. Stacey dishes up stewed chicken legs and thighs on beds of mashed potatoes. She butters her children’s bread. She dresses the salad. After Kevin says the blessing, Wade notices an additional Brussels sprout has appeared on his plate. “Who gave me three?” he asks.

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WEEKEND RITUAL Stacey Jennings prepares crepes for her children at home, as she does most weekends. The tradition began with her Alsatian grandmother.

Eating together as a family was a big part of Stacey’s childhood on a 1,800-acre farm in West Virginia that has been in her father’s family since the 1800s.

“I can count on one hand when as a child we didn’t sit down together,” she says.

Her father worked as a dairy farmer until the 1980s, and now raises cattle and grows corn, wheat and soybeans. Now 43, Stacy remembers exploring the farm with her siblings and a gaggle of cousins, raising a bull for a 4-H project and enjoying her mother’s home-cooked meals.

Her mother took full advantage of the fresh vegetables and meat available on the farm. She once bought a lamb at a county fair to make moussaka, the classic Greek dish, and her cooking was strongly influenced by Stacey’s Alsatian grandmother. Crepes, braised rabbit, beef bourguignon and, of course, coq au vin were often on the menu. The family’s French accent lingers today in Stacey’s cooking; most weekends she makes crepes for the children, and Coquette, the French brassiere, is the favorite of their restaurants.

The dinner table hummed with conversation then, and now.  “In my family, on both my mother’s and father’s side, everything revolves around the next meal,” Stacey says. “We’ll be eating one meal and talking about the next meal.”

Food played an integral but different role in Kevin’s upbringing in California’s Central Valley, one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions.

“I’m used to using very fresh things,” he says. “You’d go to the grocery store, and you didn’t have to get stuff from someplace else.”

On the way to school, Kevin would walk through an orange grove, past kumquat and lemon trees, pulling a piece of fruit off the branches for a snack.

His most vivid food memory: his Southern grandmother’s pinto beans topped with crushed saltines, jalapenos and chowchow.  “My grandmother rocked some chowchow,” he says.

Kevin Jennings talks with the staff at Coquette in North Hills.

BRASSERIE BUSINESS Kevin Jennings talks things through with Jared Gartner as Melinda Callaway looks on.

It’s only fitting that Stacey and Kevin met at a restaurant. It was in Atlanta, where they had both moved to start their careers.

Stacey, who graduated from West Virginia University with a business degree, moved there for an office job. Being young and new in town, she got a second job as a waitress to meet people.

Kevin took a different path. After high school, he started working in restaurants and helped open an Applebee’s in California’s Central Valley. He moved to Atlanta to pursue a career as an Applebee’s corporate trainer. That didn’t work out, but Kevin realized he would need to own a restaurant to achieve any financial success. With that in mind, he set out to learn and worked at Atlanta’s Ritz-Carlton and then for two popular local Atlanta-based restaurant groups.

The night they met, Stacey was out with friends, celebrating her 25th birthday, and Kevin was their bartender. Kevin swears he immediately told a co-worker that he had met the woman he was going to marry. Not about to let her get away, Kevin showed up for lunch the next day at a sports bar called Jocks and Jills, where Stacey waited tables.

Jocks and Jills is where Stacey met the owners of the original Mellow Mushroom in Atlanta as customers. She eventually went to work for them as a restaurant manager.

Kevin and Stacey moved to the Triangle in the mid-1990s, thinking they’d open a Mellow Mushroom, and believing a bank loan would easier to secure for a franchise. They were wrong. The deal fell through, and so they went looking for another opportunity in a city that was growing but decidedly not yet hip.

This was a time before there was a downtown Raleigh renaissance, before there was a Glenwood South, or even a place called Midtown. The businesses along the main drag across from N.C. State University catered to the college crowd with beer, pizza or live music.

The couple decided to open a small bistro serving wood-fired pizzas, steamed mussels and roasted free-range chicken. Called Frazier’s, it appealed to professors seeking more sophisticated lunchtime fare and to the professionals who lived in the neighborhoods behind Hillsborough Street.

Kevin and Stacey, who married nine days before Frazier’s opened, took a chance, and so did their landlord, the late Arthur Sandman. He was reluctant to lease space to restaurants – risky businesses, says his son, Michael Sandman. “For him to meet them as a young couple and help them, it speaks very highly of Kevin and Stacey.”

Arthur Sandman chose well. A few years later, the couple opened Porter’s next door. Then developer John Kane recruited them to open a restaurant at the renovated North Hills mall.

“They were obviously doing well on Hillsborough Street with absolutely no parking and not appealing to N.C. State students,” Kane says. “My God – if they can do it there, they can do it here.”

At North Hills, in 2006, the couple opened Vivace, a sleek restaurant serving northern Italian fare, and a year later took over a failed restaurant space that is now home to Coquette. They have since opened a second Vivace in Charlotte and Chow, a family-friendly pizza and burger joint in North Raleigh.

The couple has succeeded by bringing successful restaurant concepts from larger cities to Raleigh. Their menus are true to the cuisine without being rigid. The décor can be brown leather banquettes and a cozy patio like at Vivace, or the Parisian café tables at Coquette. Service is consistently good, and prices encourage regular visits. And they insist upon a family-first approach to staff.

Unlike most restaurateurs, the Jenningses close their eateries on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Family is so important to us,” Stacey says. “We want to make sure our staff and employees can be with their families as well.”

When the couple became parents, they decided to model their family life on Stacey’s family traditions. While Kevin’s family rarely talked during dinner, Stacey’s talked about everything. “We try to encourage conversation at the dinner table,” Stacey says.

And so, on this weeknight, dinner is a lively exchange about what happened at school, the Chinese New Year, a French program coming up at school, more mashed potatoes and “May I please be excused.”

The couple willingly pays a cost for this treasured family time. “If we wanted to have a family, we were going to pay to have more people working so we wouldn’t be the person called in,” Stacey says.

Kevin adds: “We pay for freedom.”

At the restaurants, Kevin is the attentive host, working the floor, paying attention to details. It’s not just about the food; it’s about the entire experience. He’s the company visionary and loves to turn an idea in his head into reality. Stacey manages the company’s books, making sure there is money to create Kevin’s vision.

Sitting in their kitchen before that recent weeknight meal, they talk about being at a crossroads with their company. They had toyed with opening another new restaurant or two in Cameron Village but decided instead to recreate Vivace in other markets.

“Hopefully, we can build a brand,” Stacey says.

Kevin adds: “If we’re going to take a stab at it, this is the time to do it.”