Over the last few years, slick new restaurants and cafés in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, have pushed out many local family businesses. Unable to keep up with rent, Rodrigo Reyes’s 20-year-old flower shop might also have been forced to shutter its doors had it not been for Mark Luxama, who found a home for his new Haitian-American café and cocktail bar, Cafe Erzulie, smack dab in the middle of the space Reyes rented.
With Reyes’s blessing, Luxama worked with the landlord—a fellow Haitian-American—to ensure that Reyes could continue making his family business in the property. Since 2015, Luxama and a small team of college friends-made-investors spent countless hours renovating the rental and backyard, and today, the flower shop faces the street and the café sits directly behind it, opening to a lovely, brick-paved garden filled with Reyes’s plants and flowers.
“What we’re doing is mutually beneficial,” says Luxama. “This isn’t just a neighborhood; it’s a place that people depend on for their entire existence.”
Unlike many of the cafés and restaurants that have cropped up, Luxama, whose father grew up in Haiti, is committed to supporting the local economy and building community. This is why Cafe Erzulie partnered with Harvest and Revel, a local caterer involved in social justice, to help create a unique menu. “We’re authentic,” says Luxama, “and we wanted to responsibly represent Haitian-American culture while also creating something entirely original. We took our own culture and experiences and then worked with Harvest and Revel to create dishes that everyone would appreciate.”
Haitian griot, for example, which is one of Haiti’s national dishes, traditionally consists of citrus-marinated fried pork. Although the pork in Cafe Erzulie’s Griot Sandwich is still marinated, it’s crisped in the oven rather than fried and then served with a light green salad.
The Breakfast Sandwich—a ubiquitous item found on menus across Brooklyn—is given a new twist by being stuffed with a perfectly cooked egg and sausage frittata (the frittata also comes without meat) and then slathered with a spicy Haitian-Creole sauce.
Cafe Erzulie’s most exciting item on the menu is also one of its most humble. In Haiti, one of the most popular condiments is peanut butter. Unlike the American version, Haitian peanuts are often pureed with scotch bonnet peppers for a spicy version called Mamba. Paired with sweet apricot brittle, it forms the basis of the café’s Spicy Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich.
Cafe Erzulie’s drink menu is just as carefully curated as its food menu. Haiti’s Barbancourt 5 Star, which is a rich spirit with tones of fruit and treacle, can be tried on its own or poured into drinks such as a gorgeous rum punch with hibiscus, orange juice and lime.
Many evenings, Luxama and his team invite musicians to perform in the backyard, adding a jazzy, often tropical vibe into this already small oasis in Brooklyn.
“We want Cafe Erzulie to be enjoyed by people who have been living in the neighborhood forever and also by tourists,” says Luxama. Concerning other entrepreneurs considering opening restaurants and cafés in the quickly gentrifying area, he adds, “the model of partnering with other local businesses could be replicated by other people considering opening restaurants in the neighborhood. It’s the right thing to do.”