Haiti earthquake: Restaurateur turns Port-au-Prince eatery into soup kitchen

Clifford Rouzeau has turned Muncheez – a popular pizza-and-ribs joint that the poor could once only dream about – into a place where thousands of those left homeless by last week's magnitude-7.0 earthquake can get a free hot meal.

Howard LaFranchi
Clifford Rouzeau has provided hot meals to thousands of Haitians since shortly after the 7.0 earthquake hit on Jan. 12. 'It started as a way to use up the leftover stocks from the three restaurants,' he says. 'People were hungry. I didn't want it to go to waste.'

Clifford Rouzeau stands on the second-floor terrace of his restaurant-turned-soup-kitchen in the Haitian capital’s Petionville quarter, and explains his turn to philanthropy in the matter-of-fact manner of the businessman that he is.

“Look, none of my three restaurants here got damaged in the earthquake. I see that as a blessing from God,” he says. “So I figure I might as well pass on the blessing.”

The form that blessing takes is the free hot food that Mr. Rouzeau has prepared in his restaurant kitchen every day since shortly after the earthquake hit on Jan. 12. Every afternoon lines form outside the downstairs entrance of the Muncheez restaurant in Petionville, Port-au-Prince’s chic neighborhood – if anything here can be called chic.

The line snakes upstairs to the open kitchen counter, and everyone picks up a plate of rice, some beans and plantain, maybe even some chicken or pork.

Then it’s back down a second staircase, no sitting or hanging around.

Rouzeau tries to play down his action, explaining that the whole operation is grounded in practicality. “It started as a way to use up the leftover stocks from the three restaurants,” he says, surveying the line of waiting diners below that never seems to shorten. “People were hungry. I didn’t want it to go to waste.”

It’s clear that many of those waiting in line think it’s a special occasion, and it is a respite from the dreary and stressful life in homeless camps where several hundred thousand Haitians in the ruined capital have settled. Some women dress up a little for the occasion, and children especially carry out their plate from Muncheez as if they’d just won the grand prize.

It helps to know that Muncheez has been a popular Port-au-Prince pizza-and-ribs shop for over a decade, the kind of third-world place where the elite -- those with a regular salary -- can eat and be seen regularly, but which the poor can only dream about.

Keeping one Muncheez open has also allowed Rouzeau to keep his staff of 105 busy – if not necessarily paid. “I think they think they’re going to be paid, but I don’t know where I’m supposed to get the money to do that if none is coming in,” he says. “If someone out there wants to come up with some cash to keep this going, I won’t say no.”

It’s only when this Haitian-American who describes himself as “living in Fort Lauderdale and working in Haiti” contemplates the future that Rouzeau allows himself a creeping doubt. “I have plenty of people who want me to open back up, but I can’t imagine opening a restaurant when there are a couple hundred thousand people out on the street and hungry,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Rouzeau says he also knows too well the tendency of too many Haitians to expect others to solve their problems for them, and he wonders if his good deed isn’t feeding that habit. “Every morning I have to clean up the plates they drop on the street the minute they finish eating,” he says. “I understand they may have more to worry about than a used plate, but it’s still discouraging.”

So in the meantime, Muncheez Petionville hands out its fare for free. Some days 1,000 people come, some days fewer. On Saturday, the long lines suggested the “number served,” as McDonald’s might say, could hit 2,000.

And as supplies run low, donations have started coming in. A business partner’s son in college in the Dominican Republic next door organized a food drive for the restaurant. Strangers have dropped off bags of rice.

“But the fuel to run the kitchen won’t last forever, and that’s not something that’s coming into the country right now,” Rouzeau says.

So what happens if the burners can’t be fired up?

“I wonder about that every day when I wake up,” he says with a shrug. “If it comes to that, I guess I stop.”

---- For all stories, blogs, and updates on Haiti after the earthquake, go to The Monitor's Haiti page.

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