New Orleans cuisine firmly planted in Columbus, thanks to alumni sisters whose roots extend into Westerville’s schools and community

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District alumni Janvier Ward and Maxx Ohakim speak highly of their days in Westerville City Schools and their love of the Westerville area community. Ward, a 2002 graduate of Westerville North High School, was known for her leadership as class vice president and as a member of numerous clubs, while Ohakim, a 2008 Westerville Central graduate, was known for her prowess on the basketball court. 

Despite their many achievements in school, the sisters may best be recognized throughout Central Ohio as two of the three individuals working to build their highly popular Creole2Geaux restaurant brand. Ward, along with her husband Sharif, launched the endeavor in 2015 with their New Orleans-inspired Creole2Geaux food truck. The family has since grown their operation to include a brick and mortar space in the new East Market (1600 Oak St., Columbus) and they have another “sweet” expansion planned for the very near future.

All of the recipes used by Creole2Geaux are authentic and passed down through generations of family. Ward and Ohakim’s mother and grandparents moved to Central Ohio from New Orleans in the 1970s. The sisters-turned-business-partners have many fond memories of those Westerville City School District educators who left a positive, lasting impact on their lives that they carry with them to this day. 

“We had a great team of teachers,” Ward said. “I’m sure they’re all still amazing.”

The pair remembers educators such as Math Teacher Jerry McSwords, history/social studies teachers Tim Ward and Tim Loehr, English language arts teachers Michelle Feige and Mary Cambpell Staebler, and Assistant Principal Jim Lytle, who “always had our back.” 

Despite the numerous names recalled, Ward still singles out one name in particular.

Mr. (Jim) McCann was my principal – he was the man with the plan for a long time,” Ward said. “He taught us the Warrior Way and I still live by the Warrior Way running my business.”

Ward said she strives to put the Warrior Way into action by giving back to others and leading by example. She often provides free catered events for the community, donates unused food to the Eldon and Elsie Ward Family YMCA to help people overcome food insecurities, and supports school events in Westerville and throughout central Ohio. For Nurse Appreciation Weeks and during the height of the pandemic, Ward parked her food truck at area hospitals to provide free meals to frontline healthcare workers.

“That all is part of what I was taught,” Ward said. “You give back, you lead by example, and you finish strong. There are so many of my classmates who I can honestly say I think are doing well because of what we’ve been taught in Westerville, as well as embodying the Warrior Way. We still talk about it.”

Ohakim attended Hanby Elementary and Genoa Middle School prior to beginning her high school career at DeSales. She decided to return to Westerville Central for her senior year in order to graduate with her friends.

“I enjoyed my time at Central,” Ohakim said. “One thing that we did that was somewhat of a tradition was learn how to build relationships. I feel like I’m able to talk to anybody from any walk of life because of my education in Westerville. A lot of people come from many different areas; it’s a very large melting pot.”

Ohakim shared that she had to take a language at WCHS and one option found there that wasn’t available at her previous high school was American Sign Language. 

“To this day, because of my sign language classes at Central, I’m able to communicate with customers that I have at my current job,” Ohakim said. “They’re so excited if you do it even just a little bit, but it’s due to those things that I learned in the Westerville School System that I definitely apply to my everyday life.” 

Another reason Ohakim returned to WCHS was so she could graduate from the same school as her younger brother, Joseph, who received his diploma in 2009. The sisters recall with admiration their sibling’s chosen profession and calling: a nurse for the Ohio State James Cancer Hospital. Sadly, Joseph passed away from a heart condition on October 1, 2020. 

“When Joseph passed away, Mr. McSwords was one of the first people to know,” Ward said. “When I tell you the Westerville community rallied around us, our family had meal trains, our neighborhood came and supported us, they were at the funeral…all of our neighbors supported my parents, especially Mr. McSwords. They made sure my dad’s grass was cut and made sure they didn’t want for any food.”

The ribbon-cutting for the East Market and soft opening of Creole2Geaux took place on April 26, which also happened to be Joseph’s birthday. 

“The line was so long, people showed up so much, our parents were here, it was extremely special to us,” Ward said. “People were introduced to our food, so that date to me is more significant than the grand opening because it felt special, like we were able to celebrate Joseph as well as celebrate the two new businesses that we had opened together.” 

Yes, two new businesses the entrepreneurial sisters will be running together. With a targeted launch by the end of June, the space next to Creole2Geaux is set to transform into “NOLA DAQ Shack,” a New Orleans-style daiquiri and milkshake bar that also offers Snowballs, another NOLA tradition.

NOLA DAQ Shack’s daiquiris and milkshakes will be non-alcoholic, but an arrangement with another market vendor, The Railhouse, will allow adult patrons to change that if they so choose. Ohakim will focus on running NOLA DAQ Shack, which she believes will be a great addition to the East Market’s food scene.

“The snowballs are going to be a huge hit,” Ohakim said. “Think of it as a snow cone, but it’s way better than that because it’s softer, fluffier, and the flavor adheres to it way better.”

Several of the sisters’ former teachers have already paid them a visit at their East Market space. It’s just another example, they said, of the bonds that Westerville City Schools’ teachers form with their students and how much they care about their students’ success, even well beyond graduation.

“I think that speaks a lot when your teachers from high school 20 years ago still care enough to check in on you and come see you and support your business to tell you how proud they are of you,” Ward said. “That means a lot. It really does.”