Few businesses start with the flip of a coin, but it was the only way to go when Seajoseffer “Joe” Spencer wanted to acquire apartments, while his investment partner, Doug Morison, eyed a restaurant franchise. Morison won the coin toss.
“We looked at franchising the Louisiana Creole Gumbo Restaurant on Gratiot Avenue near Eastern Market (in Detroit), but the owners, Margerine and Joe Stafford, wanted to sell the business and retire,” Spencer says. “We bought it in 1983. Joe stayed with us for a year to make sure we met all the vendors and we prepared his recipes properly. We had a friend, Charlie Martin, run the business, while Doug and I kept our day jobs.”
In 2001, when Spencer retired as director of programming at WGPR-TV in Detroit (the nation’s first African-American-owned television station), he took over day-to-day operations at the restaurant. By 2014, the two owners wanted to expand, so they applied for and were accepted into the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program.
A requirement of the 16-week course was the completion of a customer survey. “One question we had was where our customers came from; we found out 25 percent were from northwest Detroit and suburbs like Oak Park,” Spencer says. “That’s a pretty far drive from Gratiot (at St. Aubin Street), and that led to our new location here on Seven Mile Road (just east of the Lodge Freeway).”
To help fund the expansion, which next year will see the launch of additional restaurants and two food trucks, the pair received grants from Invest Detroit and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. ($360,000), the New Economy Initiative’s NEIdeas grant program ($100,000), and Motor City Match ($4,000).
Combined with their own investment, the ownership group — which now includes Spencer’s three children (Donovan, Troy, and Stephanie), along with Dave Bailey and Tiarah Winston — launched the three-in-one system. For every three restaurants the group opens, one will be equipped with a full kitchen that will serve two smaller locations.
“Our new Seven Mile location will serve two other satellite restaurants as a way to save money and boost efficiency,” Spencer says. “We’ll also stock the food trucks from Seven Mile, and it handles our “guestrants,” where we provide portions of our menus on a rotating basis at nine employment locations around the region.”
Through its Louisiana Creole Gumbo Catering, the company uses existing cafeterias to serve gumbo, jambalaya, Creole dishes, baked chicken, 7-UP pound cake, and other fare at Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., FCA US, and Nissan USA locations.For the three-in-one system, the business plans to expand to Ann Arbor, Lansing, and Toledo. “We want to go national, but we’re taking it day by day,” Spencer says.