Joe Spencer has seen plenty of booms and busts in his hometown of Detroit over the years running his small business, Louisiana Creole Gumbo since 1983. He watched as the auto industry imploded and housing collapsed, and he grit his teeth through the subsequent recession.
But these days, things are looking up for his resilient restaurant, famous for its gumbo served five ways. It hit $1.2 million in sales last year, leading him to open a second location.
Now one thing is on his mind: How Donald Trump stands to impact the economy, and what might that mean for endeavors like his around the country.
“He’s supposed to be business-friendly,” Spencer says, adding he’s impressed with Trump’s direct negotiation tactics with big automakers like GM and Ford to keep jobs in the U.S. “I feel as long as the auto industry does well, we will do well here in Detroit.”
He’s closely watching action on minimum wage, and believes its “key” that people have health insurance. But mostly, Spencer is hopeful about the businessman-turned-President.
“I hope they continue to encourage businesses to invest in this country, to continue to expand employment here,” he says. “If they can hold the line, I think it will be good for the economy.”
Detroit is located in Wayne County, Michigan, which backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election. However, a tight race, the state went to Trump, turning red for the first time since 1988.
Opinions from the small-business set on Trump in the Motor City area range widely. They’ve experienced their own comeback recently. The Kauffman Foundation found some 73 percent of new entrepreneurs in the Detroit metro area in 2016 were starting companies not out of necessity but because they saw an opportunity in the marketplace to do so.
And the city reported last year that more than $3 billion had been invested in Detroit’s downtown since 2013. 125 restaurants and retail locations opened up in that time period.
Some residents, like Tom Agosta, co-owner of Angelina Italian Bistro, are skeptical. His restaurant, like Spencer’s, has weathered economic storms: He opened his doors in October 2008, a time he calls “make or break” for the business. Today, consumer confidence is on the rise, and Agosta feels concerned the Trump Administration, which is set to be the richest in history, might lose sight of how changes in policy would impact a small company like his.
“Deregulation isn’t always a good thing. Look at the housing industry,” he says. “It never trickles down to the common man.”
“I don’t know how much billionaires know about how the common person lives.”
Nearby, at Lazlo, a retail start-up that makes sustainable, high-end men’s clothing, owner Christian Birky shares that concern. The company primarily sells online, and it hires formerly incarcerated men to sew the shirts, underlining Birky’s belief that entrepreneurs have the power to enact change through their business models.
Now 26, Birky says the Affordable Care Act allowed him to remain on his parents’ health insurance plan as he launched his business.
“I am personally devastated and not comfortable with the direction of where we are going as a country,” he says. “Everyone should have access to healthcare.
“I am also concerned about student debt. A lot of my peers can’t do what I am doing right now, if you look at the cost of education in general and the policy around student loan payments. It hurts people’s ability to take risks. I hope we can move in a direction that allows more people to have those opportunities.”
But Detroit native Nailah Ellis-Brown is staying optimistic. The college dropout, now 29, launched her business Ellis Island Tea in 2008, after perfecting her family’s recipe. Today she retails in some 300 stores across the Midwest, including Whole Foods.
She’s hopeful Trump will help reform inner cities like Detroit, invest in infrastructure and continue to strengthen the economy.
“There’s a spirit that the city carries of resilience,” Ellis-Brown said. “There are times when we want to give up and the spirit of the resilience that the city carries is what helps me push through. I am not in business just for myself, it’s to give back to the community.
“We’ve got Wall Street, and we’ve got small businesses like mine here on Clay Street. I would love for the President to represent the smaller communities as well.”