By Laydell Wood Harper
Good food, good company, and good Caribbean hospitality. That’s what you’ll find at Norma G’s Caribbean Restaurant on East Jefferson near Alter Road on the city’s far lower east side. The goal is to make customers feel like family. “I’ve tried to create a nice atmosphere here for my customers,” said owner Lester Gouvia. “I want them to enjoy the food and the atmosphere.”
He laughed as he added ingredients to the dish on the stove and continued to cook while talking about his restaurant that celebrated its one-year anniversary in August. “I do the shopping, I’m the chef and sometimes I do the cleaning,” he said of the place that add has new life to a strip of the Jefferson–Chalmers area.
The City of Detroit’s Motor City Match program connected Gouvia to the Jefferson East Association, the group that’s revitalizing the neighborhood.
“With the launch of our development arm – East Jefferson Development Corporation and support from the city of Detroit, the Kresge Foundation, MSHDA and JP Morgan Chase, we were able to work with Lester Gouvia to transform our old office into Norma G’s Caribbean Cuisine – the first full service restaurant in Jefferson Chalmers in more than 30 years,” said Joshua Elling, executive director of Jefferson East, Inc.
The partnership benefits the business and the community.
“This was also the first chance we had to put our new Inclusive Development Principals into action,” Elling said. “In exchange for project support, we require our partners and tenants to sign up with requirements like 51% local hiring requirements, higher wages, deeply affordable housing, and other items that ensure that the benefits of economic development are shared by the surrounding neighborhood. And of the 15 employees at Norma G’s, 13 can walk to work from the surrounding Detroit neighborhoods.”
Gouvia started the restaurant with a food truck. “We would go to Eastern market, Campus Martius, Detroit 300 food rallies and all of the local festivals,” he explained. “I wanted to build the brand first and determine if it was something that people wanted or liked. When we went through the process with the food truck people really started to enjoy the food and continued to ask where are you located? The next step was going through the process of opening up a brick and mortar place.”
The restaurant fits well into a city plan to improve commercial corridors and attract investors outside of downtown Detroit.
Driving east on East Jefferson toward Grosse Pointe, it is easy to see signs of improvement, including a strip mall, a new hardware store, and Norma G’s Caribbean Restaurant on Jefferson near Alter Road.
Gouvia named the restaurant Norma G’s as a tribute to his mom. “I wanted to honor her and the type of person she was. She loved to cook, and loved feeding people. When you go to people’s homes in the Caribbean, you eat. People love to feed you. People always eat whether they’re hungry or not.”
He’s hopeful for continued success.“I believe it is good timing for me to be here,” he said. “It’s a great neighborhood. People don’t realize the gem it is!”