Wesley Jean Simon: The man behind Brooklyn’s hippest Haitian restaurant
Wesley is a man of ideas. Speaking to Wesley, one gets the sense that he’s always dreamt big and he’s always set a high standard for himself. With a father from Léogâne and a mother from Côtes-de-Fer, Wesley grew up in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Cité-Simone, now known as Cite Soleil. At the ripe age of 14 years old, Wesley’s family immigrated to New Jersey, his dream back then was to one day live in New York City. Little did young Wesley know that one day, he would be one of the owners of Brooklyn’s hippest Haitian restaurant.
Photos provided by Maureen Boyer
Wesley studied Computer Engineering but has worked in hospitality all of his life. His first job in the service industry was at Burger King at the age of 17. He worked as a line cook while attending college in New Jersey. A promotion to kitchen manager prompted a solid career in hospitality instead of the world of computers. After being an executive sous chef at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square, he along with his partners decided to open Zanmi in Brooklyn. Zanmi opened right at the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant has been able to sustain the wave of restaurant closures by providing Brooklynites with quality Haitian dishes in a modern and lively atmosphere.
Although he also takes the role of executive chef in the restaurant, he finds that title rightfully limiting. Zanmi, which is creole for friends, was originally supposed to be a food truck, but when the opportunity to have a physical location presented itself, Wesley and his partners dedicated themselves to making Zanmi a staple in the Prospect Lefferts Garden neighborhood. Throughout the summer, they held live music events on the sidewalk; people lined up to find available tables. In order to better serve the community, Zanmi held a tree lighting for Christmas, and gave away free soup joumou to its patrons on January 1st. Soup joumou is a squash soup traditionally made to celebrate Haiti’s independence on the first day of the year. From its online presence to its availability on the online food ordering apps, it is obvious that Zanmi is not your regular mom and pop Haitian restaurant, its branding method comes from Wesley’s years in the hospitality industry.
To Wesley, Zanmi is only the beginning of his business ventures, “It’s not where you’re from, it’s what you make of yourself and how far you’re willing to push yourself,” he says. Wesley is a strong believer of self-accountability and creating opportunities for oneself. He is the embodiment of pulling yourself by your bootstraps. Despite his apparent success in New York, he believes that there’s much more that needs to be done. As a self-proclaimed “numbers guy”, Wesley’s main focus is expanding his business even if it means that he has to step on a few toes, “Unless you’re OK with your decisions, don’t get into this business. This is about putting the business first, you have to be in it 24/7. At the end of the day, you have to be able to tell people to get out of the way,” he adds. Wesley’s approach to his business may seem severe but this mentality is what has set Zanmi apart in just its first year of function. His belief in constant reinvention is what keeps Zanmi thriving in the midst of daily restaurant closures in the city.
Wesley views Zanmi as more than a restaurant but a brand, currently Zanmi sells merchandise on its website and soon they will feature various Haitian artists as designers for their shop. These Haitian artists will receive 100% of the proceeds from sales. It is apparent that his love for Haiti and Haitian culture is also what inspires his drive for success. Wesley is as much of a philanthropist as he is an entrepreneur, the restaurateur is planning on distributing 60 computers to educators in Haiti and partnering with sports brands to distribute sporting goods to children in Haiti. Although Wesley is not the sole owner of Zanmi, it is clear that his personality and interests immerse the restaurant’s ambiance, from the decor consisting of Haitian paintings to the live events. When Wesley isn’t working, he surrounds himself around art and artists, especially Haitian music “Musicians are the geniuses of life, they can speak a language that no one knows but everyone understands because music is universal.”
With his bold and upfront personality, it is easy to see that Wesley’s ideas don’t just stay ideas but they become actions. His drive for success and his love for Haiti has resulted in a successful restaurant in Brooklyn and this success will soon spill over to Haiti itself. Wesley lives his life with no limitations, he works hard and he plays hard. Wesley is now the inspiration for that 14 year old immigrant boy who once dreamed of living and making it in the city.
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