Plumes of blue-gray smoke signal lunchtime at this corner in Little Haiti.
A police officer in an unmarked black Impala slinks next to the billowing black smoker outside the new Bon Gout Haitian barbecue restaurant and lowers her window.
“Y’all got food ready yet, in there?” the officer asks.
Pierry “Wiwi” Saintjoy shuts the lid on the oaky clouds scenting racks of spare ribs and smoke-ringed brisket that have been cooking since 5 a.m. “Yes, Miss B! C’mon in.”
Scooters zip in and out of the restaurant like Miami-to-D.C. shuttles, picking up delivery orders. Inside, it’s 15 minutes after a Friday noon opening, but already the line is a dozen people deep at this six-month old neighborhood spot.
The smoke is Bon Gout’s beacon. And finally, neighbors know where to find them.
For two years, the partners in this business, Jean “BJ” Lucel and Wesley Bissaint, hauled their smoker and grill around Little Haiti to cook roadside barbecue true to its name. Their dining rooms were vacant weed-covered lots, the parking lot outside Lucel’s tattoo shop and weekends pop ups at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex.
But as outsiders prospect for cheap real estate in Little Haiti, Lucel and Bissaint staked their claim. They unhitched their grills and anchored them to a storefront in the neighborhood where they grew up. They started feeding locals, first with their brand of what they’re calling Haitian barbecue, then by hiring their friends and neighbors in a community amid transition.
Little Haiti responded by showing up hungry — with money in hand.
“Everybody knows our history here,” Lucel said. “Our stomping grounds were right here.”
Bissaint works fueling aircraft at Miami International Airport. But what he really wanted to do was follow in the family business.
His mother, Miselie Marseille, who everyone just calls Mamma Chef, had co-owned a pair of restaurants in the neighborhood, including Le Jardin on 79th Street. She told him stories about her own mother’s restaurants in Haiti, where she said they served the former Haitian president François Duvalier.
So Bissaint bought a grill and started barbecuing in the back of Le Jardin and whatever empty lot he could find near busy roads. When his childhood friend, Lucel, opened a new tattoo parlor, Bissaint approached him about partnering to barbecue in front of the shop. Lucel and his father already run a food bank, where they give out produce fresh from Homestead behind the tattoo parlor every Tuesday morning.
So he and Bissait each put in a $100 to buy meat from a local restaurant depot and started grilling at the shop.
“The first day, we sold out,” Lucel said. “From that day, we never looked back.”
The community loved it. Code compliance didn’t.
Rather than shut them down, local police and city officials who had tasted their deep-flavored barbecue steered them toward making it legal. The manager for the Little Haiti Cultural Complex, Abraham Metellus, offered a spot as vendors at the weekly marketplace.
“I had a chance to see (Lucel’s) desire, his tenacity. He worked hard to build this business,” Mecellus said. “They got together, they pooled their resources and they made something.”
Metellus gave them tips along the way: register your business with the state, incorporate, take food safety courses, get your catering license. After each task Bissaint and Lucel completed, Metellus gave them another. Think bigger, he told them.
“We understand change is happening in our community…. Little Haiti has a story to tell and we need people to help tell that story,” Metellus said. “If one person wins, we all win.” Continue reading