When Raymond Cooper was a boy in New Orleans, his dad's prowess in the kitchen inspired Cooper to learn to cook. This fall, other dads inspired him to open a restaurant.
"It all started at Zach Gordon talking about different cultures and food," said Cooper, a Juneau Youth Services employee who began volunteering with young dads at the Zach Gordon Youth Center when he moved to Juneau in October.
While trying to give the young fathers some direction, Cooper found some direction for himself, he said.
"I said, 'We can create things to do, there's always something to do. We can open up a restaurant,' " Cooper said.
The result is Ramon's Cajun Kitchen, a business sharing space with the Chilkat Cone Kitchen in the Merchants Wharf building. Cooper opened the kitchen June 4 with the help of Byron Jack Jr., 21, one of the dads he met at Zach Gordon.
"It's just overwhelming," Cooper said. "Business is going really good. It exceeded all of my original forecasts."
Cooper took the summer off from his Juneau Youth Services job and plans to return to work there in the fall. But Ramon's Cajun Kitchen - named after Cooper's college-age son - will stay open all year. So will the Chilkat Cone Kitchen.
Partnering a Cajun food stand with the ice cream shop was "an impetus to help keep the Cone Kitchen open year-round," said Chilkat Cone Kitchen owner Tony Tengs. "In the cold, rainy climate, you've got to have something hot."
Though the two restaurants are separate businesses, they will share the same till, the same work space and some of the same hours.
"Most people do not share a business, especially not a food business," Tengs said. "We're doing what people don't normally do, and we have to meet at a very high level of cooperation."
Jack has learned to assemble most of the limited items on Cooper's menu, including lemon pepper wings - a favorite among customers so far - jambalaya and Cajun shrimp pasta. Soon, he'll learn how to make Cooper's sauce for jambalaya.
"I haven't let him in on the secret yet," Cooper said, laughing.
Cooper's plan is to give Alaska a taste of New Orleans, he said. And the proof that he's fulfilling his mission comes in the reaction of the parents of Atlanta Falcons' quarterback Bobby Hebert. They traveled from their New Orleans home to Juneau while on vacation, and visited Ramon's Cajun Kitchen two days after it opened.
"They told him before the meal that if it was authentic they'd sign the board," said Jack, referring to a dry-erase board that displays the restaurant's menu. Sure enough, the Heberts' signatures are on the board.
"They said he hit it right on the head," Jack said.
When Cooper returns to work at Juneau Youth Services, Jack and his brother, Loren Charles Sands Jr., 17, will help operate Ramon's Cajun Kitchen. Eventually, Jack hopes to serve fry bread and chili, Indian tacos or both at the restaurant.
Cooper hopes to move to a larger space with more seating by next summer, to capture some of the tourist market. This summer, most of his customers are locals.
"The locals have been really supportive so far," Cooper said.
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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