Park Slope

Join the resistance! Bonbon Lakay’s ‘Operation Soup Joumou’

January 27, 2023 Andrew Cotto
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PARK SLOPE — “I started this business with a dollar and a dream and that dollar ran out a long time ago,” jokes Bonbon Lakay owner Edgina (Eddie) Desormeau.

The “dream” aspect of Ms. Desormeau’s comment was born when the Haitian native returned to her home country for a visit in 2018. This was 18 years after moving with her parents to America at age 12 and settling in upstate New York. Ms. Desormeau moved to the city for college at the Fashion Institute of Technology and combined her love of fashion and advertising into a successful career at some of the largest ad agencies in the city. Some side hustles in PR consulting led to a full-time consulting agency. Some baking on the side led to a re-connection with her Haitian roots. The fateful trip home to Haiti in 2018 gave birth to Bonbon Lakay, an online source for imported Haitian food products. “Anything traditional and beautiful that we could get our hands on,” Desormeau explains.

Edgina Desormeau, owner, inside Bonbon Lakay. Photo courtesy of Bonbon Lakay

 

Getting her hands on such products from Haiti became somewhat problematic due to logistics, so Ms. Desormeau began to prepare and provide her own creations to increase offerings and accessibility. The result was a cramped home kitchen and stacks of imported products in the hallways outside Ms. Desormeau’s Crown Heights apartment. “I had a neighbor,” Desormeau says with a wink on her lips, “who was not thrilled about the cases of peanut butter often stacked outside his door.”

The online mail order business soon bloomed into a full-time commitment with the need of a brick-and-mortar operation for retail, storage and production. The colorful storefront of Bonbon Lakay at 351 Fifth Ave. opened in July of 2021. The long, bright interior features glass display cases on the service counter, walls of white and brick, framed pictures of Haitian advertisements, and wooden shelves with imported products and nationalistic merchandise. Beyond the cake cooler in back, before the door to the patio, is the kitchen from where the smells of sugar and spice emanate.

The original intention was for Bonbon Lakay (“sweets from home”) to offer only confections (cakes, cookies, fudge and chocolates), but the many visitors of Haitian descent insisted on the addition of savory items to the bakery menu, as is the traditional custom. The menu is now evenly divided between sweet and savory, with the latter featuring a variety of flaky, meat and vegetable stuffed patties. There’s also Barbancourt rum chicken wings, Griot tacos with black rice (made with black trumpet mushrooms from Haiti), and Creole fries regularly devoured by the kids from nearby MS51.

The storefront. Photo: Andrew Cotto

Of course, no Haitian savory menu can go without Soup Joumou (pumpkin soup), the national meal enjoyed by Haitians every January 1, the anniversary of their emancipation from colonizers. And it was Soup Joumou that eventually came to mind when the realities of that aforementioned and long gone ‘dollar” came to call. The brick-and-mortar operation launched during the pandemic, followed by two respective in-store floods in the hurricane season of 2021, and then COVID variants arrived along with crippling inflation. What also arrived during these difficult times, before Operation Soup Joumou, were hungry neighbors asking for food.

“Our community was really struggling, and we never turned anyone anyway as we love to feed folks,” Desormeau says. “But we’re a business, and we have bills to pay, so we couldn’t do this alone.”

A “Pay It Forward” board was hung near the entrance, and customers began purchasing meals for their neighbors, in person or online. The receipts for the orders wait on the wall to be claimed.

Pay It Forward. Photo Andrew Cotto

This collective spirit of generosity inspired Ms. Desormeau’s effort to rally her community when financial insecurity threatened Bonbon Lakay. Operation Soup Joumou was launched, appropriately, on January 1 of this year. The program seeks pre-orders from customers and catering opportunities not only to raise money but also as an introduction to the food of Bonbon Lakay. Pre-orders placed online can be delivered city-wide via ezCater.

“Something happened in the community that made me realize that Bonbon Lakay is barely about me. Haitians come in so happy, so proud that we built this brand and that we chose this neighborhood,” Desormeau says. “My customers told me that I’ve gotten it this far; let us do the rest.”

To join the resistance, and to enjoy some amazing food while supporting a vital Brooklyn small business, visit in person or at www.bonbonlakay.com.

 

Andrew Cotto has been eating his way through Brooklyn for 25 years. As an author, the food of our borough has been featured extensively in his novels and journalism. In his new column for the Daily Eagle, Andrew will tell the tales of Brooklyn eateries, from the people behind the food to the communities which they nourish.


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