President Kenny Matassa proclaimed Jambalaya Shoppe Day in Ascension Parish on Thursday, recognizing “a quarter century in business” for Cheryl Fontenot and her family. From the humblest of beginnings the Fontenots have grown Jambalya Shoppe into a 12-store operation with its own product line, and more on the way. And it all started when Cheryl related a vision from God to her husband and business partner, Stefan.
Stefan passed away in 2013 but his presence was felt at The Jambalaya Shoppe’s recent Customer Appreciation Day.
In August of 1993 Cheryl and Stefan Fontenot were struggling to make ends meet, no small feat when the national economy nosedived and your trying to raise five sons. Worse yet, the Fontenots had lost their life-savings in the mid-80s when their finance company fell victim to the country’s floundering economy. Cheryl began cleaning houses and Stefan bounced from job to job including a stint as car salesman.
It was, to say the least, a struggle. Tired and frustrated, Cheryl got lost on the way home from a house-cleaning job in Baton Rouge one afternoon.
“Lord I can’t do this anymore,” she remembers saying. “Lord, you’re going to have to feed us.”
That same evening Cheryl Fontenot had a vision of people standing in line which she interpreted as a sign that the family was intended to open a restaurant. Stefan’s faith was strong, and it extended to a belief in Cheryl.
“I was ready,” he said in an interview many years later. “I figured we had nothing to lose.”
In a matter of days they had settled on a location (formerly Jay’s Quick Snack on Airline Hwy in Gonzales for all you old-timers), which had most recently operated as a donut shop. The leaseholder had moved his operation to St. Amant but would not agree to give up the last few months of the lease until the Fontenot’s explained they intended to sell jambalaya (not donuts).
Selling jambalaya; in the Jambalaya Capital of the World where everyone, seemingly, has their own recipe? There were detractors among the Fontenots’ many friends and acquaintances. But the Fontenots, faith never wavering, forged ahead.
“One of our dearest friends, Ronnie Richey, offered words of encouragement,” Cheryl remembers thinking it strange that you could not purchase a plate of the dish associated with Gonzales. “And two local businessman each extended $2,500 signature loans.”
They signed a lease on August 11, 1993 and The Jambalaya Shoppe was open for business two weeks later.
“We didn’t know the first thing about the restaurant business,” she recalls. “If I had known to think, I would have doubted.”
Cheryl Fontenot does not doubt, and attributes The Jambalaya Shoppe’s remarkable success to faith in God and the knowledge the He will provide. It’s not the normal business model but the spectacular success is beyond question.
The Jambalaya Shoppe soon expanded, adding items to the menu and a dozen franchises with more on the way. The next locations are tabbed for Prairieville, Thibodaux and Pearland TX. Growth presented unanticipated challenges.
When The Jambalaya Shoppe’s demand for sausage exceeded the local distributor’s supply a new opportunity arose to meet the challenge. Cheryl, as always, credits “the Good Lord with providing.”
A family friend who operated his own smokehouse had decided to close down. Oldest son, Seth, runs the operation which produces enough sausage for every location and sale in local grocery stores. He also runs the original location on Airline Hwy in Gonzales. Gradually, the Fontenots began their own line of products…
and always tried to give back to the community “that’s given us so much.”
Special Olympics is near and dear to Cheryl Fontenot’s heart.
“Cheryl is one of the most remarkable individuals I’ve ever met,” said Kathy Fives (pictured with Fontenot above) who was hired to manage aspects of the business. “Her sincerity of belief is evident every day, in everything she does.”
Fives and her husband would purchase a downtown Baton Rouge franchise.
While the growth has been remarkable, The Jambalaya Shoppe’s roots are planted in Ascension Parish.
“It has been an honor and a real pleasure to feed the people of Ascension Parish,” Cheryl Fontenot described The Jambalaya Shoppe’s journey.
“And we look forward to the next 25 years and beyond,” the matriarch points to a third generation of Fontenots already involved in the family business.