Creativity, community, and resilience. If there was a recipe for businesses that have survived the impacts of the COVID pandemic, that might be it. Those qualities are also inherent in food entrepreneur, Elsy Dinvil. Originating from Haiti, Elsy’s food journey began in her mother’s kitchen, progressed to receiving an undergraduate degree in food science in the U.S. on scholarship, then returned her to Haiti to work with USAID.
Today, in addition to owning and operating her food business , Elsy is an author and educator, writing and teaching from Creole food traditions and flavors. Below, Elsy shares more about her journey and her perspectives on what it takes for Black entrepreneurs to find success in the local business landscape.
First, tell us a little bit about your business and the inspiration behind it.
I've been in business since August 2017. And it was a dream of mine since 2005.
I was always like, “It would be nice to have something Haitian in Portland where people can get Haitian food—especially the pikleez, that Haitians put on everything. It would be nice to go to Safeway or Fred Meyer and be able to pick up a jar to put on my food.”
But I never dug in on the idea and then not too long after I started being sick. And then my dad passed away. Because I was so sick, the day my father died, I was in the hospital, and I couldn't send money back to my family because every penny I had went toward my medical bills. I had that surgery in 2011.
One of the things that I learned in my journey was that unless somebody has dealt with food allergy, they feel like you are bothering them. Why is it you cannot have soy? Why is it you cannot have sugar? Why is it you cannot have peanuts? I'll go to a restaurant and get sick 15 minutes later. I’ll miss three days of work because my stomach just got clogged up with that particular food. The goal that I had in my mind is to produce foods, condiments that people can eat and enjoy, with good flavors, rich flavors, without compromising their health or their digestive health. I want my people to know my food as safe for their belly.
I have 27 products. I have eight different types of pickleez. And then I have three marinades, one in the works. And then I infused Creole oils. I have a Haitian rub that I’m hoping to transform to a dry spice rub by 2022. For Christmas, I'm launching my spicy Korean cocktail mix. And I have a collaboration with Hibisbloom for a Creole hibiscus vinaigrette that I'm hoping to launch on December 24. For Thanksgiving, I came out with a 100 percent pumpkin line. I had pumpkin soup, pumpkin marmalade, pickled spicy pumpkin, pumpkin hummus, pumpkin porridge. All of them allergen free.
Tell us a little bit about your cooking classes.
The lady who rented me the kitchen where I made my products said, "Hey, would you like to teach Haitian cuisine?” And I'd never taught Haitian cuisine before, but I was so broke that I jumped on the opportunity. And that's how I started teaching. I wanted to portray Haiti in a very beautiful way. Not the Haiti that we know today. I mean, I don't recognize my own country right now because there's so much happening. I wanted to change the narrative about Haiti—that we are poor, we are dirty, we are a "shithole country" and all of that. Any time I get in front of people, I just showcase Haiti in the best light possible. When somebody comes in touch with me, they get the full experience—they get the accent, I have the music playing, we drink Barbancourt which is the Haitian rum, and I tell people, "You are going to cook like my mom used to cook with us in the kitchen.”
All my marinades are inspired by my mother's ways of doing things in the kitchen. So this is a way, indirectly, that I'm carrying her legacy through my food or my cooking or my sauces.
This year has been especially challenging for food businesses. What are some of the impacts you felt and lessons you've learned?
The biggest impact for me was losing my face-to-face classes. That whole arm of my business is gone. And the shocking part of it was giving up the space that I love because I couldn't afford it. But the biggest lesson that I've learned in business is to be flexible—flexible to learn, flexible to pivot your strategies, and flexibility to create. And then I am learning to give myself grace, because everything doesn't depend on me. I know I am a business owner, the mind behind my business, but I still need to be open to challenges and know that I cannot do everything, every time, all the time, anywhere for my business.
The resilience I think I got from my mom. She was an entrepreneur all of her life too, and she used to sell at the flea market. I watched her all my life, waking up at four in the morning, carrying that basket full of bread, then spending the whole day under the sun, and then loading what's leftover back on her head and carrying it back to the house. That whole idea of running my business, jumping on the bus, in the Max for two years, I owe that resilience in me to my mom. It's like she didn't give up; I cannot give up.
How does having a network and a community of other Black entrepreneurs and makers help you in this difficult time?
After George Floyd's death, I started a group of chocolate founders—brown skin food entrepreneurs in Portland—and said, “What can I do to support you? What do you need? And then we'll talk, we vent, we share.” It's important. I think there is beauty in networking; there is beauty in building a community. What makes it so special is that everybody owns a business in that space. So everybody can relate to exactly every aspect that you're struggling with, you know, “My cash flow sucks. My revenue sucks. What do I do?” So I'm very grateful for that space and that community.
The biggest side of the picture that we entrepreneurs don't talk about is the emotional health, the mental health of the person with the dream. I mean, this is huge. What I'm hearing often is, “Go get it, you are the master of your life, and you can do it.” I'm telling you, this is a big lie. And the reason why it is a big lie is because I've gone through it. I was struggling mentally; I was struggling with low self esteem. You might have a dream, but unless you deal with all of that baggage, you are always going to stop yourself. There is a soul dealing with pain, with depression, with all sorts of emotional things that need to be addressed or need to be healed or need to be consoled in order to really tackle the dream.
You were the cornerstone of gathering this group of makers together for the 15 Days of Gifting. What do you want people to keep in mind as they’re making decisions about where to spend their dollars, whether during the holidays or any other time of year?
Small businesses in general are struggling. I mean, everybody was facing a hit in some aspect of their business. Shopping locally is supporting the local economy, and at the same time, supporting creativity in local entrepreneurs. And then, as chocolate people, we are not as privileged as vanilla entrepreneurs that can walk up to the bank and fill out a loan application. I mean, I don't even I don't even fill out loans anymore. So investing in those businesses is basically telling them that we are here with you. We are here for you. We want to support your dream financially. It gives you a boost mentally to keep going forward.
You can find Creole Me Up products at select retail locations and Elsy hosts pop-ups most Friday evenings, but you can get the most up to date info by following her awesome feed on Instagram: @creolemeup.