haitian restaurant
Patrons converse in an outdoor dining area in Crown Heights in May 2021.

NEW YORK — Marie White had a few minutes to speak, as she assisted customers at Le Bon Pain Bakery in Queens Village. While slow at times, business at the bakery has begun to rebound two years into the pandemic. 

Business on that March morning was slower than the New Year holiday, when lines stretched out the bakery’s glass door for nearly a block, down Jamaica Avenue. But this crowd, White said, was hopefully a harbinger of things to come.

“We’re just coming back to where we were [in] 2019,” said White, a manager at the bakery. “It has its slow moments, but pretty much we’ve held on through the pandemic.” 

In the two years since the coronavirus pandemic shut down New York City, crippling in-person dining, Haitian businesses have surmounted much to keep their doors open, along with everyone else. But as the city reopens and mask mandates are removed, many Haitian restaurateurs and retailers say they face lingering issues from the pandemic that are keeping them from coming back at full strength. 

“You have a different issue with supplies,” said Fred Hendy, owner of Rebel restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and First Republic in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Lingering economic challenges such as the supply chain crisis have delayed the recovery for small businesses in New York, over 70% of which continued to report negative impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic at the end of 2021. Since late 2021, for example, Haitian restaurateurs have reported high costs for key ingredients like conch, whose wholesale price rose by about 50%

“It’s hard to get the product that we want from Haiti, and even from here, when you talk about where we shop, at the restaurant depot,” said Hendy, who has struggled to find Haitian staple products like djon djon mushrooms and conch.

Wesly Jean-Simon, co-owner of Zanmi Restaurant in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, said government relief programs for business owners like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) helped small businesses stay afloat. However, since PPP ended in mid-2021, there has been no relief on state sales taxes. 

“It’s actually worse than the pandemic right now,” Jean-Simon said. “Early in the pandemic there was money from the government.” 

Two years ago, the pandemic exposed a technology gap among restaurant owners. Black and Hispanic small business owners in particular, which account for less than 10% of New York City’s 204,000 small businesses, struggled to adapt to e-commerce, according to the Center for an Urban Future report from December. But some business owners who have adopted digital technologies say they have limited impact. 

Zanmi uses e-commerce platforms like Uber Eats to keep revenues coming in. Such delivery services charge restaurants fees of at least 15% per delivery, which eat into profits.

“Everybody wants a piece of your pie,” Jean-Simon said. “Why do I have to jump through all of these hurdles just to make two dollars?” 

For Hendy, digital tools have also helped in difficult times, but sales through e-commerce platforms have been difficult to ramp up throughout the pandemic, especially at his Manhattan restaurant.

“You cannot survive just on that, it’s enough to keep a few people working without shutting the door,” Hendy said. 

Some business owners in the city have fared better. At Le Bon Pain Bakery in Queens Village, sales have surged to over $2,000 per day, said Marie White, a manager at the bakery. That’s about where they were in 2019 prior to the pandemic, she said. 

Loans from the PPP helped keep the bakery’s 12 employees on staff, and the business has seen more demand for baked goods, as people gather in groups again, she said. 

“We’ve kept our prices at a reasonable rate even though the economy was changing at the same time,” said White.

Business owners can benefit from financial assistance and regulatory relief, Hendy said, mentioning city regulations specifically. 

Mayor Eric Adams has since announced on Mar. 4 that restaurants and other indoor venues would no longer need to ask customers for proof of vaccination. However, individual businesses can still enforce vaccination and indoor masking if they choose

Financial assistance could also come in the form of tax relief, Jean-Simon said. 

“The state did not budge on the taxes,” he said. “The state needs to be taking care of their own constituents.” 

This story is published in partnership with the URL Media Network and is produced with funding from the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund.

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America corps member. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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