I interview longtime activists about their experience with initiating and nurturing social change in their communities. This month’s feature is St. Louis native, Robert Spence, an acclaimed chef, culinary arts enthusiast, and small business owner who often unites the community for social justice causes with his southern-style cuisines.

Tell us a little about your background.

Even as a little boy, I wanted to cook for a living. The cooking and entrepreneurial genes transferred over to me from both my grandmothers. Big Mama, my paternal grandmother, would make BBQ dinners for the church 2-3 times a year, and I would help her. She would stand me up to the oven where she taught me how to bake cakes. One day, she told me, “Spence (she always called me by my last name), we’re going to get some big ol’ polish sausages and put them on the grill and sell them soon.” We never got to do it together, but she spoke my calling into existence.

My other grandmother, my mom’s mother, was from Somerville, Tennessee. I never met her, but I heard plenty of stories about her and felt like I knew her through other people’s memories. She was a cook and owned a juke joint. They called it Lake Macedonia in Tennessee, and it was a popular meeting place, especially on Fridays. BB King, Isaac Hayes, and other musicians used to frequent there. She also sold moonshine, had a bakery, and sewed clothes for people.

Down south, they cooked the whole hog while we only cooked parts up here in the city. My paternal grandmother was known for her BBQ and BBQ sauce. She couldn’t read or write, but she could count money and she knew how to make it. She was one of the first people to buy her own land down there and purchased it from a plantation owner. She paid a dollar per acre for it and built a wooden house first, then a 3-room brick house, which was one of the first of her time to have running water, electricity, and inside bathroom. From there, she was able to plant her own crops. She had a pond and that’s how she made moonshine with the wooden barrel. She introduced me to fresh hog meat, chicken, hams, etc. She passed away right after my mom got married.

Professionally, I was part of a young male leadership group at Mathews-Dickey Boys & Girls Club in St. Louis, Missouri. We did fundraisers, outings, and went to Oakland Park Inn (now known as Holiday Inn St. Louis Airport Oakland Park) where I saw the chef, William Jones. I did an internship for four years on Saturday throughout high school where I would go out to the hotels and work for free.

I learned how to prep, work in the dish room and all of that on the professional side. That’s what ignited everything. My freshman year of high school, I landed a summer job at the Adams Mark Hotel (now Hotel Regency Downtown) in St. Louis where I really got my hands wet, helping with banquets that held 25-300 people each night. I started in the dish room and had to work my way up.  After that, I worked at the Marriott Maryville, Hilton Airport and Pizza Hut.

During this time, I met a lot of people. I’m indebted to several renowned chefs who took me under their wing, including Gordan Phillips, Robert Schultz, Mark Philips, Carl Bozebo, Robert Foley, and Carey Wise.

I ended up taking a leave from work and wasn’t hired back. While enrolled at Forest Park Community College, I started working at the Marriot Pavilion Hotel (now Hilton Ballpark). They put me in a management training program where I worked all the areas of the kitchen then, primarily in the main kitchen downstairs. The hotel was known for its breakfast buffet where all the baseball teams would come and dine. The St. Louis locals knew that was the place to be.

While working at the Marriott Pavilion, I went to a food show at the convention center and bumped into the executive chef for the St. Louis Rams (now the Los Angeles Rams), Jonathan Williams. A couple weeks later, Williams made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I went to work as his assistant. I worked on primarily the hot side, and we did everything – if you ordered food, it came out of our kitchen. That kitchen was operated by the Levy Brothers who operated kitchens for many ballparks and NASCAR. We had chefs of all nationalities from all over the world come in.

During this time, I also competed in state and local competitions, and earned a certificate from American Culinary Federation (ACF), so I’m ACF-certified. I became a member of the Chef De Cuisine (local chapter org of ACF) which I’m still affiliated with today.

Afterward, I went back to teach at Mathews-Dickey and wrote a lot of their curriculum.  I was approached by a baseball and football coaching team who wanted to do a fundraiser, so I cooked the food and made the menu, and in doing that, I created my own rub and sauce. In exchange, Mathews-Dickey supported a fundraising event to help launch my business, and it went really well.  

I started selling BBQ from out of my house on the weekends and catered for AT&T, Ford, Blue Cross, US Bank, MD Club, Pepsi, Barnes BJC, St Louis University, US Bank, several small business, my church family and my immediate family. I was creating a buzz and began distributing to Mom and Pop stores, but then I experienced some challenges. My distributor at the time put my stickers on the bottles incorrectly, and the containers ended up melting in. To me, it felt like I was being discriminated against, being an up-and-coming Black small business owner and community figure. So, I ended up buying all my products back from my retailers and I had to deal with the co-packer.

Eventually, I found a realtor and started looking for a building to set up my own restaurant. I had the idea for Café Brown Stone, which would offer a fusion of Creole, Asian and Southern-style cuisines.

Well, I had a business plan but needed $250,000 and I had no collateral. Eventually, I was advised to shorten the restaurant’s name to CBS, rewrote a business plan, and kept building from there.

The property I got was dilapidated and I didn’t know how I was going to fix it, but on the weekends, I started going up there and selling BBQ on the parking lot. Just me, my grill, and tents. People began to put me in touch with all types of contractors, and my realtor referred me to the contractor for her family’s restaurant (Diner’s Delight). We began to do what we began to do, and CBS was born.

CBS’s opening led me to cook for several celebrities, the 2011 Budweiser SuperFest in St. Louis, Super Jam (Radio One), the government center, churches, golf courses, and St. Louis Community College.

Restaurants opened and closed but I was determined to make it, come hell or high water.


What was a moment that helped transform you into the person you are today?

Back in January 2017, I was diagnosed with cancer of the small intestine. My oncologist was very optimistic but he told me we had to move quickly. He told me to free my schedule up and started scheduling me for surgery which was nine days after diagnosis. It was probably one of most depressing times I’ve ever experienced.

I wound up closing the restaurant because I couldn’t find staff to cover, and I told customers I was closed for renovations. What was supposed to be two weeks’ downtime turned into four months. This is when the real journey began!

The day of surgery, I was hired to cater for Southwest Airlines and that would’ve took the business over the top. But, I went on to surgery and my life changed forever.

I came home in a lot of pain, and I had two additional surgeries after that. Then, I was on chemo for about 18 months, sometimes several at one time (two oral and one was administered through the IV)—two weeks on and two weeks off. Along the way, there were complications with the treatment that resulted in congestive heart failure, but by October 2020, they weren’t seeing the tumor that they’d also found on a blood vessel during one of my earlier surgeries.

At this point, I’m cancer-free! I still continued with the immunotherapy as long as it didn’t cause any side effects.

The power of community and the prayers of the people really got me through. I’m thankful to my pastor Bishop Michael Jones of Friendly Temple Church, Chris Sanders, Virgil Pierson, Ella Rogers, my sister Artivia, Marcella Good (aka DeeDee),Wilford Lee and Tori Anthony – I couldn’t drive for a while, but they all made sure I got to chemotherapy. Joel Olsteen’s mother even put me on her prayer line which opened up more prayers.


How have you combined your passion for food and cooking with community activism and a desire to spark social change in your community?

My restaurant has catered for a number of local social justice events. One was the STLCC-Forest Park Social Justice Week Kickoff Brunch. The city’s colleges, like Forest Park, Harris Stowe, St. Louis University, Truman Colleges, and some universities in Illinois, all had their social justice departments attend to discuss ways to make higher education more accessible to underrepresented communities in St. Louis and also techniques of spreading awareness about current social issues.

Food always draws people together, even and especially for events like these that are for a good cause. 


What’s some of your favorite dishes to cook? What items stay in popular demand?

I love cooking BBQ which is why CBS started out as a BBQ dive. Then, it expanded with soul food only on Sunday. But, the soul food demand went so high that I started doing it every day along with the BBQ.

There’s many popular items, including chicken, catfish, jack salmon, pig snoots, baked turkey wings, roast brisket, fried and smothered pork steaks, candied yams, greens, dressing, mac and cheese, black eyed peas, Cajun style okra, fried corn, spaghetti, mashed potatoes, potato salad, cole slaw, fried rice (special), buttermilk cornbread, peach cobbler, lasagna, and house made pickles.


What current initiatives are you working on? What can we expect from you?

I’m moving to Atlanta this year. It wasn’t originally on my radar, although I have family and friends there. I was setting out to be a hometown hero, but I responded to a post which led me to be in touch with president of National Black Chef’s Association (NBCA). That led me to come to a function in ATL where I received an award from NBCA and decided this was going to be my new home for the business. When I returned to St. Louis, I closed my restaurant in February 2020 just before news of the pandemic changed the world.

So here we are now. I’m currently doing a relaunch of many products, including Roberts Original BBQ Sauce and Roberts BBQ Rub, and a launch of Roberts Flaming Hot BBQ Sauce, Robert’s All-Purpose Seasoning and Robert’s Fried Seasoning. Other products coming soon are Robert’s Wing Sauce and Mango Chili Sauce, Spicy Seasoning, and Seafood Rub.  


Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

God shows up when you’re at the end of your rope. I am a testament to the saying ‘be careful what you ask for’, but it was imperative I went through what I went through to get to the manifestation of the healing and the blessings.