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Flint, MI—Two people have called in orders for the oxtail dinner before the restaurant has even opened.
“They know it sells fast,” Nisan Wilson, owner of the Island Express, said with a smile, scribbling the orders down in her notebook before going back to chopping cabbage.
The curry chicken is simmering in one pot, the oxtails in another. The jerk chicken has just been slathered with sauce, and the rice and beans are ready to accompany the next customer’s dinner of choice. The little turquoise kitchen smells like heaven.
It’s 11:30 a.m. on a Monday, and Wilson has been in the kitchen since seven. With her son out of town, the restaurant is a one-woman show. She’s taking the phone calls, cooking, packaging orders, handling payments, and dealing with customers as they walk in.
Eventually, she hopes to hire more staff, but she’s still just getting started.
Wilson, 50, opened her Caribbean restaurant on Flint’s north side in October of last year. It’s located right next to a Boost Mobile, where the old Max Beef Pro Barbecue used to be, at 3318 Martin Luther King Ave.
Before she found a brick and mortar location, she was operating a mobile food booth. That was a year ago. Before that, it was just a dream.
When Wilson moved back to Michigan to care for her grandparents about six years ago, opening a restaurant wasn’t in the cards.
It was something she’d always wanted to do. She loved to cook the Caribbean cuisine she’d grown up with in Belize—the meals her grandmother taught her to make before she could even reach the countertop. Her friends and family loved to eat her food, too.
But it was a risk she couldn’t take yet.
Wilson was a pharmacy technician. It was a reliable job that allowed her, a single mom, to take care of everyone else—her grandparents, her three children, and her dogs. There were very few circumstances that would cause her to leave a job like that. But last year she did.
Wilson’s grandfather, who had dementia, passed away a year ago at the age of 96, and her grandmother had already passed before him. Her kids were grown by now, and having kids of their own. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Wilson’s hours at the pharmacy got cut. Now, she was spending two hours a day driving to and from Detroit for a four-hour shift. At this point, her paycheck was just covering gas and car maintenance.
She had nothing to lose.
“Before, I didn’t want to take the chance because I had to be home at a certain time, I had to make sure to pick my grandfather up, and care for him and all of this,” Wilson said. “And now my children are grown, so I was able to take that risk. And COVID forced me to.”
At the beginning of last year, Wilson told her family she was done with the pharmacy, and was going to look into starting a food stand. She was met first with surprise, and then immense support. Her kids became her business partners, and everybody chipped in, she said.
“They were lifting generators for me and setting up tents, and you know, doing everything. My son and my daughter, I couldn’t have done it without them,” she said. “They were very supportive.”
Wilson decided to test the waters of her new business by selling tamales at the Farmer’s Market annual Flint Hispanic Festival. She participated in the festival as a vendor every year selling handmade bags, and was used to selling her bags at Flint Handmade art markets on weekends, so she decided to try her hand at vending food.
It was a “fabulous success,” giving her the confidence to take her food business further. She used her savings to buy supplies, and her mobile food booth was born. She traveled around, parking in outdoor spaces and selling her food.
As winter approached, Wilson found her building. Now she works from 7 a.m. to 8:30 or 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. On the weekends, she takes trips to Detroit to get the food supplies she needs for the next week (there’s never enough oxtail), and on Sundays, she comes into the restaurant to bake.
“I work longer hours, and I work harder, but it’s so much more rewarding,” she said. “Pharmacy was great while I was raising my kids. It was reliable, it was a dependable career, but you can’t beat working for yourself and accomplishing something.”
It didn’t take long for word of this new Caribbean restaurant in Flint to get out. People from Fenton, Grand Blanc, Pontiac, and Detroit have made the drive to come get a taste.
“That’s really my favorite part is how it’s received by the customers,” Wilson said. “The customers, and how God has moved everybody’s hearts to be so receptive, and having customers from all over. You know, that’s my favorite part is having that contact and that communication with the customers.”
The cooking part is automatic, Wilson said. She could do it in her sleep.
The food she sells is the same food she grew up cooking and eating, along with some new takes on American favorites, like macaroni and cheese “Caribbean style,” and vegan options inspired by her four years as a vegan. The menu grows a little each week.
Wilson started learning to cook at a young age in Consejo, Belize, where she was born.
Belize is a Caribbean country, and the only English language-speaking country in Central America. It’s surrounded by Latin countries, so Belizean cuisine has a heavy Latin influence.
When Wilson was 10 years old, her family moved to Michigan. In her late teens, she moved to South Florida and spent most of her adult life there.
“In South Florida, there’s a big cultural blend, you know, we have Caribbean islanders, Haitians, we have a Latino mix, we have everything,” Wilson said. “So that’s what my food is. It’s Caribbean. It’s a mix of everything.”
Her grandmother was the expert, and taught her most of everything she knows. She also attributes her entrepreneurial spirit to her grandparents who owned their own restaurant in Flint for a short time.
Wilson wishes they were alive to see her restaurant now.
“My grandfather was proud of everything that I did. He would have 100% been sitting right over there every day being a cheerleader,” Wilson said gesturing to the front of the restaurant. “And my grandmother would be in here telling me, ‘No, no, more salt in this.’ You know?”
Her son and daughter are the ones usually in the kitchen with her now, and multiple days of the week her grandkids are in the restaurant too, doing their homework and eating the same food Wilson serves the customers. She hopes she can inspire them to follow their dreams the way she did.
“My grandkids, you know, they get to see grandma in action,” Wilson said. “And then they get the idea of starting things. You know, they talked to me about, ‘oh, I want to start this’ or ‘I want to start that, Grandma’ or whatever. And I love that I inspire them to do that.”
Wilson’s goal is to keep the physical restaurant open, but also get a food truck. She loves the outdoors and talking with customers, so the mobile unit is what she likes best.
But more than that, her goal is for her restaurant to be something her whole family can be a part of, and be sustained by.
“I want to be able to leave it to them, and watch them grow it, and extend it, and make it better,” Wilson said. “And just watch and see what they turn it into.”