AS THE EARTHQUAKE’S devastation continues to unfold in Haiti, it is sending aftershocks through the small-business community in the United States.
For some, it means supplies of goods from Haiti have been cut off — raising the troubling question of whether it might be necessary to abandon trading partners in the country. Others are considering the delicate issue of whether there is a business opportunity to be explored. And of course, looming over all of this is the human element of the tragedy. Many of these small businesses have strong ties to Haiti, whether it’s through employees, business partners or in some communities, their frequent customers.
“The people that come in just want to know about their families; they are not buying,” says the owner of the Ultimate Bakery Shop, a Haitian bakery that’s located in the predominately Caribbean Flatbush section of Brooklyn, N.Y. “If you have five children in Haiti and you haven’t heard from them in three days, you’re not going to eat,” says the owner, who didn’t want to be identified by name.
Brooks Pepperfire Foods in Rigaud, Quebec, relies on a Haitian pepper farmer for a key ingredient in its Hurricane Mash and other hot sauces it markets to restaurants and specialty shops. Twice a year, Brooks Pepperfire receives a 50- to 150-pound shipment of what co-owner Tina Brooks refers to as goatpeppers. “They call them goatpeppers because goats are very possessive. If you get a good goatpepper tree, you’ll have to fight the goat for it,” says Brooks.
The small, bright red peppers look like a cross between habanero chili and a Scotch bonnet pepper, she adds. “There is something in the Caribbean soil: the sun, the salt… They taste like they should taste. Grown elsewhere, they taste watered down. When they are grown in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean, they are more flavorful. Any pepper grown in its indigenous soil tastes better.” Typically, the company receives a shipment in June or July and right about now. “I don’t think we’re getting any now,” says Brooks. “I have some stock leftover, but once that runs out I will have no more goatpepper mash. We may use other peppers.”
Rockville, Md., businessman Bill Begal is accustomed to going to work in devastated areas. His company, Begal Enterprises, does disaster restoration work, traveling to battered zones to facilitate clean-up and other efforts for businesses. But the possibility of contracts in Haiti presents a dilemma as Begal worries about the safety of his workers. He says he would need facilities on the ground for his employees to sleep, bathe and eat. However, given the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just issued a recommendation that U.S. travelers avoid all nonessential travel to Haiti, Begal’s decision is on hold — for a while at least. “We are not sure what good we could do if we were there… Our work would be to assist damaged property owners, but many of the property seems damaged beyond repair.”