Profile of Edens Gaston, owner of ‘Mr. Creole,’ a food truck in Detroit. A former police officer in Haiti, Gaston now serves up a taste of Haitian culture around the midwestern city.
DETROIT — Edens Gaston was a police officer assigned to Haiti’s National Palace in the early 2000s, but lost his job after a coup against then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Over the next eight years, Gaston lived in Haiti and the Dominican Republic without a job, met a woman online who lived in America, married her and moved to Cleveland, Ohio.
Gaston expected to make money in America but found things weren’t easy for him.
“My first job was as a janitor,” Gaston said during a recent interview. “No matter who you are in Haiti, when you immigrate to America, you have to take things step by step — like a McDonald’s job, a cleaning job, something lower than your expectation.”
Two months later, he landed a full-time job as a machine operator at Chrysler Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Trenton and made the move 170 miles west to Detroit. Over his decade there, Gaston met a co-worker who sold food to employees during lunchtime. Gaston decided to sell Haitian food.
Gaston said he prepared 55 plates of Haitian food to sell at work every day for a while. At first, he had to explain certain elements of Haitian cuisine because his co-workers had never tasted Haitian griot before. After a while, they started “going crazy” over the food, he said.
In 2019, Gaston decided to start the food truck business. A native of Maïssade in Haiti’s Central Plateau, Gaston, the eldest of four children, had learned to cook from his mother. He also attended a prep-cook class in Detroit in preparation to open the truck.
Years later, Mr. Creole, as he is known, owns one of the city’s most sought-after food trucks.
“I don’t really do the food truck for the money,” Gaston said, ”But because I like to feed people. It’s my passion. I go every end of December to the shelters and I give people free food.”
A welcome addition to the city
To many Detroiters, Gaston’s experience lays out clearly what Motown has to offer – jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Margareth Corkery, director of the Haitian Network Group of Detroit, said the city is a big draw because of jobs in various industries and the cost of living lower than in other metropolitan cities.
“Although the outcomes may be different for those with precarious immigration status, in 2022, Detroit was designated as a certified welcoming city to immigrants,” added Corkery.
“Some of the newcomers are professionals and entrepreneurs who are attracted by new opportunities for advancement; and others are here to further their education,” Corkery said.
Over the last 60 years, hundreds of thousands of Haitians have fled violence, political oppression, poverty and natural disasters. From the Duvalier dictatorship in 1957 to today’s gang-fueled violence, many have arrived in New York, Boston and Florida searching for freedom, safety and jobs.
In the past decade, some Haitians, including many newcomers, have found a toehold inland. By 1980, some Haitians began moving to Detroit for good-paying jobs in the auto industry. In 1986, they created “Espoir” – French for “hope” – to maintain Haitian culture and help Haitians with language and immigration status issues. Espoir later became the Haitian Network Group of Detroit.
Since 2021 – the year Haiti’s situation worsened with the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, followed by an earthquake that killed 2,200 – a new wave of immigrants has arrived in Detroit, Corkery said. They have joined with those like Corkery and Gaston to make up the estimated 3,671 people of Haitian ancestry who live in Michigan overall. However, both citywide and statewide, observers say, Haitian newcomers are arriving faster than official tallies are registering them.
These Haitians are looking for a taste of lakay; and Detroiters exposed to Haitian cuisine also hunger for variety in flavors. Their need is one that Gaston and a few others are excited to meet.
Nakim Edmond, 27, a Detroit resident for three years, first tasted Mr. Creole during a Haitian culture festival in July.
“The griot was good and I ate it twice,” Edmond said. “It always sends me home, naturally. That’s what I love about Haitian food. The pieces reminded me of fritay on the street.
“Vyann nan toujou bèl,” he added in Creole. “The meat always looks good.
Navigating a new livelihood
At first, it was very challenging for Gaston to operate the food truck. Such vehicles make up an industry estimated at $2 billion in 2017, according to a Food Truck Nation survey sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. While the number has declined since the pandemic, food truck earnings can generate anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000 depending on their location, according to industry estimates. In Michigan, food trucks generate $120,000 to $150,000 per year, according to Gaston. Expenses, including licenses and regulations, can also mount.
Initially, he struggled to navigate through the government regulations for food trucks. Then, he was scammed by two people, forcing him to sell the first truck.
“I spent up to $55,000 to buy a new food truck, well-equipped, and respect the government rules,” said Gaston.
From the new gleaming red Mr. Creole truck, Gaston offers oxtail, jerk chicken, curry chicken, Haitian griot, fried chicken, jerk pasta and Voodoo burgers. Prices range from $14 to $28 a plate.
Gaston’s challenges are different with this new food truck. In 2022, Gaston said, the city had about 50 food trucks and he was able to spend more days selling at the Spring Plaza downtown. Now, about 90 food trucks fill the plaza, meaning that he must find other events in Michigan to sell his food.
Another challenge he had to overcome was in marketing. Because Detroiters know of the Caribbean broadly, not Haiti, Gaston adjusted his descriptions of the food to make it easier to get customers.
Also, during the pandemic in particular, not having a regular location where clients could always find him made it difficult to serve them. Gaston has since begun looking for a fixed location. A permanent location too would also make it easier for people using apps like Uber Eats and Doordash to buy food.
Currently, to streamline orders at events and through orders, Gaston has two employees to assist — Day Flower, a cashier, and his mother, Marie Carmel Gaston.
“I make sure all my three sons and my daughter know how to take care of a house and how to cook properly,” a proud Mrs. Gaston said.
“A piece of heaven on earth”
Through the challenges, Gaston managed to build a reputation for kitchen skills people can’t resist.
“Gaston’s food truck is a great addition to the city’s multicultural tapestry,” Corkery said. “Wherever the red truck is parked, you cannot miss it. Being able to purchase a plate of lalo is a piece of heaven on earth.”
Gaston was one of the caterers, in the 2022 Bèl Bagay Lakay, our biennial Haitian Art festival held in Farmington; and he was a hit,” she added.
Another Haitian who makes Haitian food at her home every Saturday in Detroit is Syndy Maxi, a mother of 3 kids. Her home is a rendezvous for some Haitians to meet and eat their preferred Haitian food. Maxi, who works at the Detroit airport, started selling Haitian food after one of her co-workers also tasted it and asked her to bring more to sell.
Corkery said there is “real” need and a market in Detroit for Haitian restaurants. “I have been pushing for a brick-and-mortar Haitian restaurant for years,” she added.
Gaston too is looking to potentially open a permanent restaurant. In November last year, he had to stop the truck because it got too cold and he found it difficult to move. As a result, people must order for him to deliver or come to his spot to purchase the food.
For now, the search for a brick-and-mortar location continues.
“In five years, I want to find a spot to put [away] the food truck and open my restaurant in the Detroit area,” Gaston said.
This story is supported by the Ford Foundation.