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#5017: Fast Food Oasis (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>


   PETIONVILLE, Haiti, Sept 4 (AP) -- From the burst of air conditioning to
the bright walls of yellow, blue and red, Food Planet stands out like an
island of light in the gathering gloom.
   "I have never traveled. But when I come here, I feel I'm in another
world," said Sandra Cayo, 30, a regular customer since Haiti's first
American-style fast-food restaurant opened a month ago.
   In a country besieged by social, political and economic miseries, where
many people can't afford to eat every day, businesswoman Nelda Villard's
decision to get into pizzas and burgers indeed seems otherworldly -- an
affirmation that all appearances aside, hope is not lost.
   Each morning, before opening for business, 35-year-old Villard and her
staff gather in a circle for a prayer: "We offer the day to God, and pray
that Haiti will become the Pearl of the Antilles that it once was."
   "If you love your country, you have to do something for it," said
Villard, surrounded in her office by computers and monitors. "If everyone
overcame his fear, stopped complaining and invested, things would improve."
   The daughter of a Lebanese immigrant and Haitian mother, Villard is from
one of Haiti's more established families. That helped her get a bank loan
and to build on family-owned land.
   Still, with the economy in shambles and the situation unstable, it's a
risk few would take. Many small Haitian businesses have closed or laid off
employees, victims of the political volatility and violence that plagues
the Caribbean nation of 8 million people seven years after American troops
invaded to restore democracy. Studies show most Haitians would seriously
consider leaving -- if only they could.
   Food Planet employs 35 people working six days a week in seven-hour
shifts for 2,000 gourdes ($95) a month -- about triple the minimum wage.
   Everything except water and soft drinks is imported from the United
States. The sole concessions to Haitian traditions are a side dish of rice
and beans, and the island music that keeps everyone swaying.
   It's a place of convenience in a land of bare subsistence; parents can
eat in peace while children clamber up a ladder to a blue tunnel slide,
ride hobbyhorses and eat on picnic tables outside.
   The prices are beyond most people's reach. A medium
pepperoni-and-mushroom pizza costs $6.90 and a "steack" submarine sandwich
$3.60. Still, the restaurant has room for 100 people and gets about 300
customers a day, Villard said.
   "This is as good as in the States," exclaimed Jean-Claude Filien, 53, a
cell-phone engineer who has lived in New Jersey, Florida and New York City.
For his children Claude, 13, and Mindy, 14, the $2.60 cheeseburgers brought
back memories.
   "There's free parking and security," marveled Filien.
   Two red-bereted security guards with shotguns were posted outside, a
measure against growing street crime.
   Villard knows people who have been gunned down in daytime robberies. Two
years ago, a vengeful former employee of her mother attacked Villard while
she drove; blood ran down her face from the forelock he yanked out of her
scalp. Her 7-year-old son, who was in the back seat, still has nightmares.
   Villard hopes to repay her loan in two years -- but potential pitfalls
   The cost of her imported materials rises as Haiti's currency loses
value. In mid-August, cooking gas went up 13 percent.
   Petionville, a Port-au-Prince suburb of 200,000, gets only three or four
hours of electricity a day because the government can't afford fuel for the
power plants. So Villard installed two expensive diesel generators that
cool the air by day and keep the lights on at night.
   Her phone doesn't always work, but her optimism is undimmed; she plans
to offer home delivery soon.