After two years on the road, popular Caribbean food truck Norma G’s is getting ready to settle down in a new brick-and-mortar restaurant in Jefferson-Chalmers. Owner Lester Gouvia tells Eater that he’s aiming for a fall debut for his casual, full-service restaurant on Detroit’s east side.
Gouvia launched his truck in 2015 serving Trinidadian-American comfort foods such as jerk chicken sliders, curries, and macaroni and cheese and was a finalist in the 2015 Hatch Detroit Contest. Last summer, with help from Motor City Match, Norma G’s struck a deal to leasing the former Jefferson East Inc. building at 14700 East Jefferson Ave.
The restaurant will seat roughly 98 people inside including a centrally located 12-seat bar and high-top dining area facing the kitchen. During warm weather, the restaurant will also feature a patio with between 24 and 30 seats wrapping around the Jefferson Avenue adjacent sidewalk. Special retractable windows will also be added to the building to give the restaurant an indoor-outdoor feel in the summer and Gouvia is hoping to build a shed that will allow him to grill outside in the winter.
Don’t expect faux Caribbean kitsch from Norma G’s, either. “I’m avoiding tiki,” Gouvia says. “To me, when people think Caribbean that's what they think and I'm trying to really bring a little subtleness — casual, fine-dining,” he says. The interior will mix punches of color that become entwined with the Norma G’s brand. The restaurant will feature walnut wood tables wrapped with chrome bands and pewter cushioned chairs and bar stools upholstered in bright colors such as yellow, teal, and pink.
The menu will also reflect a familiar if somewhat more grown up version of Norma G’s food truck menu. “The whole thing is trying to take that Caribbean feel — what I'm accustomed to going to people’s homes — and just having a good time and being treated nice and eating good food and sharing a conversation. It's not stuffy,” Gouvia explains. Diners can expect a standard menu with dishes like polenta-based cou-cou and a vegetable dish called callalou as well as sliders, jerk chicken pasta, and baccalau (a type of salt fish).
Gouvia says he has faced numerous challenges along the way to brick-and-mortar. While helping design and renovate the space, he’s also been busy piecing together a complicated patchwork of grants and loans to fund his business with support from organizations like Tech Town and Food Lab Detroit. While the Norma G’s founder admits he anticipated some of these roadblocks, he says he underestimated exactly how difficult it could be to finance a restaurant in the city.
“Detroit — downtown, Midtown — a lot happening. There's a lot of growth. People are opening up and you go, ‘Wow! Did they bring their money with them? Did they have a large amount of money? How did they get their financing?’ Because I know obviously everybody at some point in time has to finance,” he says of the experience opening a business. “That's the confusion for me. I know I didn't have a lot of capital to bring to the table. I did have some but I not a lot, so I had to seek financing. I had to get creative.”
Still, in the end Gouvia is hopeful that the work he’s put in will pay off. “I'm going to keep plugging away because at the end of the day, I see what I'm doing here,” he says. “This is not just about me running a business. I don't want to sound corny here, but I think being part of this neighborhood change or this transformation — I really want to be a part of that.”
• Demitart Gourmet/Norma G’s Website [Official]
• Caribbean Food Truck Norma G's Going Brick-and-Mortar in Jefferson Chalmers [ED]
• Norma G's Caribbean Food Truck Rolls into Detroit [ED]
• Lester Gouvia Talks Food Trucks, Caribbean Food, and St. Cece's Pop Ups [ED]
• All Eater Tracking Coverage [ED]