September 4, 2000

Fast food joint an island of light in gloomy Haiti

                  PETIONVILLE, Haiti (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

                  "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 abound.

                  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.

                  Copyright 2000 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may
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