A Little Haiti Eatery Expands to Miami Airport

Written by The Miami Times

Chef Creole will soon share its unique fusion of Haitian-Bahamian culinary tradition with the plethora of tourists and visitors who come through Miami International Airport on a daily basis.

Owner Wilkinson Sejour, affectionately known as Chef Creole, is well known around Little Haiti, but he has managed to attract the attention of county commissioners, a famous chef, big-time developers and scores of loyal customers. Banks, however, have managed to overlook Sejour’s popularity. Still, he has been able to open up six Chef Creole locations, the latest at the airport next week.

Sejour almost had to remodel his original location because on Sunday, a Miami-Dade County Transit Metro struck a support bean, causing serious structural damages, according to Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. Ten people were hurt at the Northwest 54th Street location, two with serious injuries.

The crash impacted business for the Chef Creole location due to the closing of the surrounding area. As of Monday, the bus was still lodged in the building as Miami Fire Rescue’s Technical Rescue Team worked to stabilize the building.

The idea to open a location at MIA was suggested by County Commissioner Barbara Jordan.

“Jordan’s support and legislation helped spearhead the negotiations with the airport,” said Sejour.

Jordan praised the food served at Chef Creole and the tenacity of Sejour in a recent email.

“A poor kid from the streets of Little Haiti, by the ways of the Bahamas, has grown into a successful entrepreneur,” Jordan said. Sejour has been “serving the finest Haitian cuisine throughout Miami-Dade County, and now has ascended to serving international customers at Miami International Airport. His food is simply delicious and airport patrons are going to love it.”

Miami-Dade Aviation Director, Lester Sola, said Chef Creole will increase the diversity of foods served at MIA.

“With nonstop flights to more than 150 destinations around the world, our goal is for the future of the shops and restaurants at Miami International Airport to be as diverse as the passengers we serve, and as diverse as Miami-Dade County,” he said. “To that end, we are proud to welcome Chef Creole to our multi-cultural mix of dining options, and yet another local business to the MIA community.”

For his latest restaurant, Sejour will have to adjust his business model, mostly because of a recently approved living wage ordinance for airport concession workers.

“When you come into the airport and you look at the overhead that it takes in order for you to try to make a profit, you are already behind the eight ball,” he said.

In late July, the board of county commissioners agreed to institute a living wage ordinance for concession workers at MIA, an initiative that was supported by Commissioner Jordan. The ordinance requires airport concessions to pay employees $12 to $15 an hour, depending on health benefits.

The ordinance has not come into effect as of yet, but Sejour is already thinking how to adjust his business model to comply with the ordinance. “I have to make a decision, [on whether] I absorb the cost or do I pass it on to my customers,” he said.

Sejour said the ordinance is good in a “general sense,” but for small business owners, it can mean cutting into profits. The ordinance gives Sejour’s company the responsibility that could be more easily absorbed by a larger company.

“But you will not be able to profit like a conglomerate,” he explained.

At the MIA location’s opening Wednesday, Sept. 19, employees will receive minimum wage, until the living wage ordinance is implemented in the airport. Minimum wage in Miami-Dade County starts at $8.25 an hour.

When accounting for the living wage ordinance, Sejour is weighing reducing portion sizes or raising prices in the menu. “As a business owner, it is a catch 22 for me.”

Though a learning curve is imminent for Sejour’s new enterprise, he is hopeful that he will maintain the managing and culinary culture he has created at his previous five restaurants.

“Like any other business, you are going to have to roll with the punches,” he said. “And once you are a proven success story in their home, they will allow you to push the envelope.”

He has been able to finance his small concentration of successful restaurants with little support from banks.

“The biggest challenge was financing the different locations,” he said. “I would have to finance my own endeavors.”

Additionally, curating a menu and replicating it uniformly throughout the different locations were equally as challenging. “You need to train people to be identical to your system,” he said.

“People need to understand that what is going on at restaurant No.1 and 2, needs to go on at restaurant No. 3.”

These same challenges are looming once he is fully operational in the airport.

He touts the support of the county commissioners as a reason to be hopeful for the future of his new business.

“They are very attentive; they have opened up the doors of possibility to keep this engine running,” he said about the commission. “They know this engine represents employment for a community that is struggling.”

Sejour’s restaurants, including the MIA location, employ more than 50 people, most of whom reside in the Little Haiti area. “More than a businessman, I am my community’s biggest supporter,” he said. He is willing to take a chance on employees who have been denied by other employers, whether due to criminal records or lack of experience. “Growing up in Little Haiti, Lemon City, Liberty City, I understand that stuff happens. It doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means you made a mistake; I’m trying to solve the problem.”

Sejour was born in the Nassau, Bahamas to Haitian parents and started cooking at a young age. He opened the first Chef Creole location in 1992 and focused on mixing a luscious fusion of Haitian-Bahamian cooking traditions to craft an original menu that reflected his identity and background. “The flavor of our food is Haitian, but we mix it with Bahamian items,” Sejour said.

Haitian cuisine relies heavily on ingredients like green onions, okra, oxtail and pork. Sejour fuses seafood-inspired options to reflect his Bahamian heritage. “Conch fritter, fried conch, fried shrimp, lobster, conch salad, these items reflect the Bahamas,” he said. “Our style and presentation are what sets us apart.”

ANTHONY BOURDAIN’S VISIT

The late world-renowned chef, Anthony Bourdain, who took his own life earlier this year featured Chef Creole on his show, “No Reservations,” circa 2006. The show helped established Sejour as a Haitian culinary staple in South Florida.

“He was a guy that was so down-to-earth,” he said about the late chef. “He felt like a homeboy, and it was natural.” Almost 12 years later, “Bourdainians” come to visit the restaurant where Sejour and Bourdain enjoyed a traditional Haitian meal. Bourdainians are tourists who follow the different locations that Bourdain documented throughout his travels.

“To this day, they come to my store and ask if this is where he was sitting and order what we ate when we filmed the show,” Sejour explained.

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