Growing up, Joe Spencer never pictured himself as a restaurateur. After retiring from his successful broadcasting career, it was merely by chance he found himself managing the day-to-day operations at Louisiana Creole Gumbo, a local Cajun, Creole and Southern-style restaurant and catering business.
While he always had an appreciation for food, he spent a majority of his career in broadcasting, acting as producer and manager for WGPR. As he was looking forward to retirement, Doug Morrison, a friend of his from WGPR, had his eye on buying Louisiana Creole Gumbo and urged Spencer to be his business partner.
At the time, Spencer was looking to purchase an eight-unit apartment building on Detroit’s west side. Struggling to decide between the two, Spencer suggested they flip a coin. As the quarter hit the table, fate landed on Louisiana Creole Gumbo.
In 1983, Spencer and Morrison took over for the owner, a warm-hearted Louisiana native named Joseph Stafford who had been running the business with his wife since 1970.
Stafford eagerly shared his family recipes and longtime business practices with Spencer, visiting the restaurant daily for about a year. While most of the original recipes remain, including Stafford’s spice blends for Creole, gumbo and jambalaya, Spencer has made significant adjustments to the menu over the years.
“When I came in, I had to put my own flavor in it,” he says.
Since his takeover, Louisana Creole Gumbo now features Southern-style dishes as well. While you won’t find Spencer donning a chef’s hat, he always makes sure the food is fresh and flavorful.
The Cajun and Creole-based dishes include five different varieties of gumbo, four different types of Creole and a few versions of jambalaya.
The standard jambalaya has a spicy kick, featuring heaps of rice mixed with Cajun beef sausage and chicken. Diners who prefer milder spice can opt for the beef jambalaya, which is more like a stew.
Down-South delicacies range from baked or barbecue chicken, meatloaf and vegetarian items, including sides such as macaroni and cheese and collard greens.
For visitors who have room for dessert, specialties include peach cobbler, banana pudding and a longtime favorite — Martha’s Sweet Potato Pie.
Every day of the week, people line up at the counter for a taste of Louisiana Creole Gumbo. The original store on Gratiot only has a few tables and is primarily carry-out, while its newest location off of Seven Mile Road and Schaefer has greater seating capacity.
A Louisiana Creole Gumbo staple featured at both locations are mini cornbread muffins, which have a crisp, golden exterior and are perfectly moist and buttery on the inside.
“Our cornbread muffins are an integral part of what we do,” Spencer says. “If we aren’t cooking them fast enough, people will come back in 15 minutes just to get them fresh.”
Louisiana Creole Gumbo has not only become a staple for city-dwellers. Employees at businesses like Chrysler and GM also benefit from their catering services. Known as its Corporate Food Sales Division, Spencer’s company will be expanding its outreach with the addition of three food trucks.
With a business that’s constantly growing, Spencer credits his employees. A small handful have been with the company since Stafford’s time, but a few newcomers are moving the company forward, including his daughter Stephanie, the marketing specialist, and his son Donovan, who acts as operations manager.
Spencer also utilizes Detroit business initiative groups like the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program. He even received a grant through the Motor City Match program, which is aimed at providing resources for small businesses.
With the help of these initiatives, plus his long-time management experience, Spencer feels fortunate to have found success as a restaurateur in the city.
“It’s a good time if you’re an entrepreneur to do business in Detroit. The city and its leaders are trying to help the city move forward.”
As a passionate businessman and Detroiter, Spencer is motivated to continue to bring positivity to the city and its surrounding suburbs. And what better way to add to the Motor City than with mouth-watering cuisine?
Louisiana Creole Gumbo
2051 Gratiot Ave., Detroit
13505 W. Seven Mile Road, Detroit