When it comes to Haiti, the phrase “food truck” probably brings to mind images of food aid distributions like the ones that followed the January 2010 earthquake. But two restaurants that have recently popped up in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood recall something much closer to the craze for D.C.’s dining trucks and Portland’s food carts.
Street food is anything but a new concept in Haiti, as vendors sit under umbrellas on every Port-au-Prince sidewalk peddling fare like fried plantains, chicken, and spaghetti. At night, you can find a Haitian milkshake in any neighborhood, chock full of everything from bananas and breadfruit to peanuts and noodles, and always with plenty of cane sugar. A few enterprising Haitians, however, are consciously taking a cue from food truck scenes abroad and adding their own Creole twist.
Owner Blaise Edrick would have liked to expand his restaurant, Fanatik, in downtown Port-au-Prince. But he has “a real space problem,” he says. “It was only when I spoke to a cousin who lives in the U.S., who helped me a lot with this project, that I learned that this way of selling food already exists in other countries, particularly in the U.S.”
Edrick decided to follow the Willie Sutton strategy of mobile dining: set up where the money is. Every evening since its opening two months ago, Fanatik’s Fast Food Mobil truck comes to the Turgeau neighborhood to park in front of the sleek tower that’s home to telecom giant Digicel, the largest private employer in Haiti. “People are working up there at night,” Edrick says, “and they need food.”
Fanatik’s mobile operation keeps the food menu simple: spaghetti, macaroni, or a sandwich, with your choice of protein (egg, chicken, or ham). A chicken sandwich costs 75 Haitian gourdes, less than $2.
“I came one time before, and now I’m back,” says Eugénio Jean, a Turgeau resident, as he leaves with a plate of spaghetti and a bottle of sugary, processed fruit juice. “The food is good and cheap. I think that the area really needed something like this.”
Just a few blocks up the road, Alain Codio and his two business partners opened Chicken Master food stand last month. They got the idea while living in the capital of the neighboring Dominican Republic. Codio says that a favorite Santo Domingo food truck – Strong Burger – inspired him. “After any party,” he says, “even at 2:00 in the morning, everybody goes there, and it’s affordable.” Codio wanted to bring the same concept to Port-au-Prince, although his aim is mainly the lunch crowd.
For now, Chicken Master is housed in a retrofitted section of a shipping container and has a small thatch-roofed seating area nearby. They also offer motorcycle delivery. “Ideally, we would have a truck that can move around,” Codio says. The owners hope to purchase a few trucks from the United States and set up mobile franchises to sell around Port-au-Prince, and, eventually, in other Haitian cities and towns. “It’s so simple,” he says. “You look up in the States, there are plenty of them.”
With a name like Chicken Master, employee Christian Malebranch envisioned the bone-in barbecue chicken plate becoming the signature item. But he says that the 100-gourde Chuck Norris burger has been especially popular, even with Haitian customers not known to be burger connoisseurs. The Hakuna Matata chicken sandwich, also 100 gourdes, has sold well too. Regardless of the main course, Codio and Malebranch say that their fried breadfruit with secret-recipe dipping sauce is the most popular side by far.
Office workers and students from nearby Quisqueya University have made up the bulk of the clientele so far. Codio expects business to “explode” when the fall school session starts back in September. “Haitians eat chicken,” he says. “It’s the cheapest thing around, so people are going to eat it” — one reason that a recent ban on poultry imports from the Dominican Republic has been so controversial.(He says that Chicken Master, which sells imported U.S. chicken, hasn’t noticed any effects from the ban.)
“Our focus was affordable, quick, and tasty,” Malebranch says. And while Chicken Master’s fare might meet all of those criteria for Haitian office workers and students, the Associated Press reported in June that an estimated two-thirds of the country’s population “goes without food some days, can’t afford a balanced diet or has limited access to food.”
But in the midst of all the challenges that make it difficult for so many Haitians to provide for their families, one neighborhood’s nascent efforts show that aid distributions don’t have to define Port-au-Prince’s food truck scene.