Gumbo Girl has been open in its current location on Highway 18 for around a year and a half, but the storefront wasn't the beginning. Kithuka says her mom, Johnnie Shelby, taught her and her two sisters how to cook soul food growing up. Kithuka loved seafood, though she says her family often couldn't afford it. Nonetheless, she promised herself that when she became an adult, she would eat all of the seafood she wanted.
Her love for seafood is what piqued her interest in Cajun dishes.
"One day, I wanted—I'm not going to particularly say gumbo; I didn't even know, honestly, what gumbo really was," she says.
She got on the computer, looking for recipes for seafood such as shrimp and crab legs. That was when she ran across gumbo.
"I read about it, what it was and all that, and I said, 'You know what? I'm going to make me some,'" Kithuka says. "I went to the store, and I got a box of Zatarain's because, of course, I didn't know how to make gumbo from scratch and all that—didn't know anything."
Though Kithuka used the box recipe initially, she says she added her own tweaks, and family members began telling her that she should sell it. Then, she started experimenting with the recipes to perfect her version, and now she's been making gumbo for 20 years.
She graduated from Jackson State University in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism, and received her master's degree in public relations from the university in 2014. After working in broadcast journalism for a while, she realized that the media field wasn't for her. She started working for her brother-in-law, Troy Wells, at his business, Wells Heating and Cooling, as an administrative assistant. She met her husband, James Kithuka, in 2009, and the couple married in 2011. They had their son, Solomon, in 2012.
Over the years, Kithuka mostly sold her gumbo to friends and family, and she also became a licensed caterer. James says they had originally looked at their current restaurant space in 2011, but immediately afterward, they found out that Kithuka was pregnant.
"We just couldn't see ourselves experiencing a pregnancy and actually opening a restaurant at the same time with, like, no restaurant experience," he says.
"And I wasn't ready," Kithuka adds.
While in graduate school, she was making gumbo for her professors, and her husband convinced her to post on
Facebook about it.
"When I posted it, everybody went crazy," she says. "They started inboxing me, private-messaging me, asking me, 'Can I buy this?' And they were hitting me up on my page. It just really blew my mind."
After that, Kithuka began selling gumbo out of her home. When the business got too big (she says people were even asking for reservations), she and James started scouting for spaces again. They first looked at one in Clinton, but it would have required a complete renovation. Then, they came back to the space off Highway 18, where the couple then opened Gumbo Girl in 2015.
Kithuka says the recipes on the menu are ones that she often makes for her own family, including dishes such as steak tacos and the house surf-and-turf gumbo, which has Gulf shrimp, blue crab, crawfish tails, chicken, sausage and okra.
"My menu, it's just a makeup of everything that I would cook at home," she says. "Everything that I fix at home, that's what I put on my menu. Nothing different; I haven't invented anything."
Gumbo Girl (5681 Highway 18 W., 601-790-0486) is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, visit gumbogirl.com.