In the early parts of 2014, the infamous polar vortex descended over Detroit, bringing temperatures that made the North Pole seem downright tolerable. With sub-zero temps combined with above average amounts of snow, it was the type of weather that inspired people to stay indoors, to avoid going out whenever possible. For a restaurant owner, it's the type of weather that means trouble.
At Louisiana Creole Gumbo
, sales were down 20 to 25 percent that year, says the restaurant's president and co-owner Joe Spencer. The New Orleans and southern style kitchen is located at 2051 Gratiot Ave.—
just on the outskirts of Eastern Market—
and has been since 1970. Spencer says it was one of the first, if not the first, Creole-style restaurants in Detroit.
The polar vortex threatened to put Louisiana Creole Gumbo out of business. Instead, Spencer has managed to turn the restaurant around, in part by taking advantage of the many small business programs in Detroit. Starting in 2014, Spencer enrolled in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small businesses program
. He's since received funding from Invest Detroit
and Motor City Match
. Most recently, Louisiana Creole Gumbo won the $100,000 NEIdeas award
With the help of those programs, Spencer recently opened a new location on the city's northwest side at 13505 W. Seven Mile Rd., near Schaefer Highway. The Goldman Sachs program helped Spencer conduct a survey, determining that 25 percent of his customers live in northwest Detroit.
"Detroit has a really terrific system that's designed to help small businesses, to help people start businesses as well as help businesses that already exist," says Spencer. "I've been benefited greatly from that."
The restaurant was first established in 1970, though not by Spencer. That distinction goes to Joseph Stafford, a chef who learned to cook from his mother in Bayou Laforche in New Orleans. Spencer, who's lived most of his life in Detroit, had never even tried Creole-style food before a fateful flip of a coin set the course for the second part of his career.
Before he purchased Louisiana Creole Gumbo, Spencer had made a name for himself in broadcast media. In 1972, he worked for WWJ, becoming one of the first black radio producers in Detroit. In 1975, Spencer became the program director at WGPR-TV 62, the first black-owned television station in the nation. He stayed with channel 62 through its purchase by CBS in 1994, eventually taking an early retirement opportunity in 2001. He's since focused on the restaurant full time.
It was in 1982 when Spencer and business partner Doug Morrison purchased the restaurant from original owner Stafford. Wanting to go into business for himself, Spencer had originally approached Morrison about purchasing an eight-unit apartment building on the city's westside. Morrison, on the other hand, had his eyes on Louisiana Creole Gumbo. A coin flip decided the duo's fate.
"Joe Stafford, having sold us the restaurant, spent the next year coming in to work every day to teach us how to prepare the product," says Spencer. "How to maintain his proprietary spice blends that he had, to control the taste of the food, how to manage the product, to introduce us to the vendors, create a relationship with the vendors, so we could continue his legacy. He really had a great product."
The restaurant's continued success, now edging towards 50 years since first opening, is a testament to Stafford's original product. And now that Spencer has gone through a number of Detroit's small business programs, both educationally and financially beneficial, he's gearing up for a major expansion of the business.
The new Louisiana Creole Gumbo in northwest Detroit is just the beginning. Spencer has an ambitious ten year plan to open 100 new locations throughout the I-75 corridor. He's also going mobile, having pegged the NEIdeas award money for two food trucks. The menu, too, is expanding; the new location features healthier options like red beans and quinoa, rather than rice, and vegetarian gumbo, in addition to the traditional favorites.
For Lousiana Creole Gumbo, just a couple of years removed from that nasty polar vortex, it seems that a new season has arrived.