Haitian refugee becomes Battle Creek restaurateur, realizes his American dream

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Battle Creek – On a cold Tuesday afternoon, Juliano Jean-Jules was outside Kellogg Arena, where he tended to some cherry wood-smoked brisket and jerk chicken wings on his rotisserie grill.

His sleeves were rolled up and he wore an apron and a knit cap. His mask only partly obscured the joy on his face as he readied the meats before darting inside to a commissary kitchen where he cooked and assembled dishes for curbside pickup.

“I put my heart into it,” Jean-Jules told the Battle Creek Enquirer. “I love doing the cooking. When people come and say it’s good, that pushes me. I do it from scratch. I take my time. If I have to get up early, I will do it, no problem. I have to make sure they get their food. I want my customer to have my food hot and the way they wanted it. If people are happy, I’m happy.”

Entrepreneur Juliano Jean-Jules cooks Caribbean cuisine for his pop-up restaurant Island Style BBQ inside a commissary kitchen at Kellogg Arena on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in Battle Creek.

It’s been quite a journey for Jean-Jules to bring his one-of-a-kind blend of Caribbean- and American-style food to Battle Creek. A refugee from Haiti, his opening of Island Style BBQ represents a realization of both his personal dream and the American dream.

Jean-Jules and his wife, Daleth, have lived in Battle Creek for 12 years, where the couple raised their three adult children. His story begins in the port city of Saint-Marc, Haiti, as one of nine children.

“I was the older one in the house. My daddy was a fisherman with my mom. When they would go fishing, after school I would come home to prepare dinner for my sisters and brothers,” Juliano said. “That’s how I know I can cook. When they come home from fishing, I always tried my best for them.”

Jean-Jules said that as a teenager in 1990, he was making money by helping people into boats to flee the island nation after Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected president of Haiti, was overthrown in a coup d’état and the military government was persecuting his followers.

One day, Jean-Jules said he “jumped on the boat and came.”

His boat was picked up by U.S. authorities and Jean-Jules subsequently spent over a year at a refugee camp at Guantanamo Bay, where some 50,000 Haitian and Cuban refugees would eventually be held. The naval base known as “Gitmo” has been used as a military prison for alleged enemy combatants since 2002.

“It was tough, but wasn’t locked down,” he said of the camp. “We would play soccer and go to the beach, go fishing. It wasn’t too bad.”

Jean-Jules’ first stop in the United States was in Lansing. He had relatives in Michigan but he did not know them yet, so he said he was homeless for weeks, living at the Lansing Capital Airport until an uncle in Brooklyn, New York sent for him.

Daleth had moved to Brooklyn from her native Guyana in South America when she was 13 and became neighbors with Juliano’s uncle. The couple met at a block party in 1994 and married six months later.

“He’s a charming fellow and there is something about the connection that was made,” Daleth said. “What drew me in was this smile that he’s got. That’s a nice looking guy who can cook and clean and do all this stuff.”

Entrepreneur Juliano Jean-Jules outside a commissary kitchen at Kellogg Arena on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in Battle Creek

In 1997, the couple moved from New York to Lansing, where they opened a clothing store “that didn’t go very well,” Daleth said. Juliano partnered to open Lil’ BBQ Shack in 2016 before stepping out on his own.

The Jean-Jules family moved to Battle Creek in 2006 after Daleth took a job with the Battle Creek VA Medical Center, where she continues to work as the Homeless Program Manager while helping her husband with Island Style BBQ when possible.

Juliano made a name for himself locally after taking home the Judge’s Choice Award for 2020 Best Startup Pitmaster at the Que the Creek Festival at Kellogg Arena in February.

The genesis for Island Style BBQ began at the family dinner table, according to Daleth.

“He is from Haiti, I am from Guyana, we’ve got some adult kids that are American, first generation. The idea was born out trying to put all three cultures together in this nice collective,” she said. “You have Haitian, Guyanese and American culture in the same household. My husband loves cooking food and has always wanted to do that, so here was this unique opportunity to bring this to Battle Creek. This is my husband’s dream and vision.”

Island Style BBQ is targeting a spring opening of its brick and mortar location. It is operating as a pop-up restaurant during the holiday season, and is available for delivery through Eats BC.

The startup has been aided in its launch by the Battle Creek Small Business Development Office and through its membership in the Second Muse/Morning Light cohort, a six-month entrepreneurship incubator program supported by the city of Battle Creek, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and other community partners.

While a pop-up restaurant isn’t how Juliano envisioned starting his own business, he’s grateful to be serving his food to a community that has embraced him and his family.

“I appreciate everything I have because life is tough,” Juliano said. “When I come to America, I thought America wasn’t going to be tough like that. But America is tough. The stuff I make, there’s not too many people who have it here. Some people say they have to go to Ann Arbor or Detroit. I can make the same thing as in Ann Arbor or Detroit, maybe even better.”

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