KINGSPORT — In 2005, Sherrie and Kenny St. Germain and their four children lost virtually everything they owned in Hurricane Katrina.
Left with nothing, they made their way east to Kingsport, where one of Sherrie’s friends had lived for years.
Once here, the St. Germains enrolled their youngest children in school, bought a house, and tried to move on from Katrina, building a new life in a new town with new friends.
But Sherrie — whose family roots run deep in Louisiana — still missed New Orleans, its festive atmosphere, and its Cajun cooking. She dreamed of starting an authentic Cajun and Creole restaurant in Kingsport, and shared that vision with Roger Beal, a friend the family had met at church.
Beal was new to Kingsport, too, having moved here from northern Georgia two years ago.
“I was telling Roger how I missed the food and atmosphere of New Orleans but I wouldn’t leave Kingsport,” Sherrie said. “Then he found this place — it was perfect.”
Together, the St. Germains and Beal decided to act on Sherrie’s vision. They debuted Cafe N’Orleans Nov. 5 on Cumberland Street in downtown Kingsport.
After the storm
When Hurricane Katrina destroyed their house, leaving a toxic oil covering everything on their property, Sherrie and Kenny St. Germain knew they had to move on. One of Sherrie’s friends had lived in Kingsport for 18 years, and had tried over time to get the family to move here.
“Now I’m sorry she didn’t try harder because I’d probably moved sooner if I had seen it. We fell in love with it,” Sherrie said.
Kenny went to work at Phil Bachman Honda, and Sherrie worked to make their new house a home. The house sits in the Ridgefields community, and faces Bays Mountain.
“There’s just something therapeutic about waking up every day and seeing that mountain there,” Sherrie said.
In another part of town, Roger Beal and his wife, Laura, were settling into their newly adopted community. Roger was originally from Pittsburgh, and most recently had worked as a general contractor in rural North Georgia.
But the couple wasn’t happy there. They started searching for a new community based on demographics, climate and other criteria.
“I was looking for a place not as rural as North Georgia and not as big as Pittsburgh. And I found Kingsport,” Beal said.
He and his wife first rented a place to stay, then earlier this year, bought a house built in 1939 on Catawba Street.
“Tree-lined street, sidewalk. We know all our neighbors and they know us. You don’t do that in a lot of places,” Beal said.
He said Kingsport is a different world than rural Georgia. There, he said, with his northern accent, he was treated as an outsider.
“Here, the people welcome you to the community,” Beal said. “That’s special.”
When paths cross
Beal and his wife met the St. Germains at church and soon the families became good friends. When Sherrie shared her vision of a restaurant with Beal, he started searching for a suitable building. Just as he was ready to give up, Beal was contacted about a small place on Cumberland Street that had served as a restaurant before.
Sherrie took a look and loved it. “It was small, had an enclosed patio. Perfect,” she said.
Cafe N’Orleans opened Nov. 5. The restaurant offers New Orleans po’ boy sandwiches on French bread made in Louisiana and shipped to Kingsport. Daily hot plate specials include red beans and rice, chicken and sausage gumbo, jambalaya, and shrimp Creole. Soup and salad are also served, as well as cafÃ© au lait and beignets, a New Orleans-style doughnut topped with powdered sugar.
Sitting in the cafÃ© one day last week, Sherrie took a break from the kitchen to enjoy a French-fried potato sandwich smothered in roast beef gravy — a dish called the “True Orleanian.”
Photographs of her home and property before Katrina and after are displayed on a counter. Colorful beads are strung here and there, and a mural painted by local artist Kathy Blair hangs outside, depicting scenes of the Crescent City.
Only two weeks since opening, Sherrie said business is going well, and word of the restaurant is spreading. Customers are returning time and again to enjoy a taste of Cajun country.
“I was homesick, but with the restaurant now, I’m home. I have a part of New Orleans here,” Sherrie said.
She said she loves her new hometown, and never wants to leave.
“The last time we went back to New Orleans, I was ready to leave skid marks — get me back to Kingsport,” she said.
“I love downtown, the schools, the people, Blue Grass on Broad,” Sherrie said.
Beal chimed in. “This town is incredible,” he said. “There’s something going on all the time. And you’ve got about the sweetest people I’ve ever met.
“It’s funny how the Lord makes things happen,” he added.
The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, with extended hours to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays to accommodate the auction crowd next door.
Sherrie said she hopes to extend operating hours this spring.
For more information, visit the restaurant at 316 Cumberland St., or call (423) 245-5400.