By Oona Milliken | [email protected]
Edgina Desormeau, owner of Bonbon Lakay, a Haitian restaurant in Park Slope, said her business started as a side hustle in 2018 that she ran out of her apartment. Since then, Bonbon Lakay, which means “Homemade Treats,” in Haitian Creole opened in Park Slope in 2021 and has survived the COVID Omicron wave of 2022, two rounds of flooding, as well as the usual hurdles that small-business owners face.
Currently, Bonbon Lakay runs a Pay It Forward program to raise money for people who need free meals and to fundraise for other business expenses. Despite the difficulties of owning a small business, Desormeau said that her customers, as well as sharing Haitian food with New York City, means the world to her.
“Our customers continue to be so excited about our business, no matter what our menu looks like, no matter what our product offering looks like,” Desormeau said. “They really truly energize us. I’ll have a bad day, and then a customer will walk in and remind us why we started.”
Desormeau said she originally started selling wholesale Haitian goods like peanut butter, cookies, fudge, soda and crackers because she missed the foods she grew up eating. She was born and raised in Haiti, but moved to the United States when she was 11, and said she always knew that her work would be connected to the place she grew up in. After a trip to Cap-Haitien, often referred to as Okap, she said she was having difficulty finding the treats she loved as a child, and decided that she needed to do something about it. According to Desormeau, she started selling wholesale Haitian goods on top of her advertisement job until it became unfeasible.
“This business was taken over my apartment, like I would be blocking my neighbor’s doors with like 40 cases of peanut butter,” Desormeau said. “We really outgrew the space and it became this thing where it was like, ‘Okay, if I can’t get into a physical brick and mortar to do this right, to do this the way it’s supposed to be done, I don’t want to keep doing it.’”
Desormeau said the Pay It Forward program grew out of people coming in after the Omicron wave and asking for free food. According to Desormeau, Bonbon Lakay did what it could, but the restaurant was already low on resources from paying for the damages caused by floods and the losses incurred by the pandemic and did not always have the bandwidth to give food or goods away.
“As we’re coming out of Omicron, we’re getting this stream of people coming in asking for free food, and we did what we could give them free food, but at the end of the day, we’re a business, you know, we’re not a soup kitchen,” Desormeau said. “I was grabbing lunch with a friend in Manhattan, and this restaurant had a Pay It Forward board where any meal that you purchase, they would match and they would give a meal for free. I see this board, and I’m like, ‘This is an aha moment. Why not create our own Pay It Forward board?’”
Despite launching the board in May of 2020, Desormeau said that Bonbon Lakay did not promote the initiative until the end of 2022 into the beginning of 2023 when a customer suggested that Desormeau put the board online. From then on, Desormeau said the board became about simultaneously helping our neighbors who might need a free meal, but also about helping Bonbon Lakay stay in business.
“In looking at how 2022 unfolded for us and thinking about the year forward, there was a moment at the end of 2022 where I genuinely did not know if we would make it to 2023,” Desormeau said. “I’m like, ‘Okay, we’re finally going to put this on the website, we’re going to encourage people to pay it forward.’ And we’re going to be candid and say, ‘Hey, our pay forward board was initially born out of folks asking us for free food, and now it’s not only now a way for you to sponsor us to pay it forward, but it’s also pumping that much needed cash flow into the business.’”
Desormeau also launched Operation Soup Joumou at the end of 2022 to raise funds. Soup Joumou, a soup associated with Haitian Independence Day on January 1st, is symbolic to Haitian people as it was solely reserved for French slave masters in Haiti, off-limits for enslaved people. When Haitians gained independence in 1804, the soup became a way to celebrate a free Haiti, and the tradition continues to this day. Desormeau said the goal of Operation Soup Joumou and Pay It Forward was to raise $100,000, which Bonbon Lakay has still not managed to do. Still, Desormeau said the two initiatives managed to bring in new business and money, and Bonbon Lakay continues to survive. According to Desormeau, her customers make the struggles of keeping Bonbon Lakay open worth the effort.
“It’s always sweet and motivating to hear [customer’s] stories. We sell a cookie here called Bonbon Amidon. This older gentleman was telling me how he ordered Bonbon Amidon from us, and, this is an older man probably in his 40s 50s, he was telling me how he cried eating Bonbon Amidon,” Desormeau said. “To be completely honest with you, I have moments where I’m absolutely not hopeful and I’m ready to quit. Then a customer walks in and it makes me feel like it’s day one of the business all over again.”