A married couple who fled from Haiti to Virginia realized their American dream when they opened a variety market on the East Coast, selling hard-to-find spices, soft drinks and rice to the region’s growing Haitian community.
When they added a Haitian food truck, people drove from an hour away for freshly cooked oxtail, fried plantains and marinated pork.
But Clemene Bastien and Theslet Benoir are now suing the city of Parksley for forcing their food truck to close. The couple also says a city councilor cut the mobile kitchen’s water pipe and shouted, “Go back to your own country!”
“When we first opened, there were a lot of people ordering food,” Bastien said through an interpreter. “And the day after there were a lot of people. And then… they started harassing us.”
A federal lawsuit alleges the city passed a food truck ban that targeted the couple, then threatened them with fines and jail time if they raised their concerns. They are represented by the Institute for Justice, a law firm that has described a “series of abuses” in the historic railroad town of about 800 residents.
“If Theslet and Clemene were not of Haitian descent, the City of Parksley would not have engaged in this abuse,” the lawsuit states.
The city council is pushing back through a law firm it hired, Pender & Coward, which said its own investigation found many allegations were “simply not true.”
The couple failed to apply for a conditional use permit and opted to file a lawsuit instead, the law firm countered. It said the councilor had cut an illegal sewer pipe – not a water pipe – after the food truck dumped grease into Parksley’s sewers and caused damage.
The councilor had the authority to do this as a representative of the Public Works Department, the law firm said.
“We expect to prevail once the evidence is presented,” attorneys Anne Lahren and Richard Matthews said.
Conflicts between local governments and food trucks have played out in the US for decades, often pitting the aspirations of enterprising immigrants against the concerns of local officials and restaurants. Tensions can spark debates over land use, food safety and the rights of food truck owners in underserved communities.
The Parksley dispute is unfolding on a narrow peninsula of farmland and coastline between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, where the population is largely white but increasingly diverse.
Black and Hispanic migrant workers from Florida, Haiti and Latin America began picking fruits and vegetables in the 1950s. Many people from Haiti and Latin America now work in the pens and slaughterhouses of the growing poultry industry, which extends north into Maryland and Delaware.
Several community members said the lawsuit unfairly vilifies a city that has integrated recent immigrants into its 1.62 square miles.
Parksley has two Caribbean markets, a Haitian church and a Latin American restaurant, all close to the hardware store, flower shop and the iconic five & dime.
Accomack County Board of Supervisors member Jeff Parks said the city has “welcomed any business that operates within the rules.”
Parksley was once a transport hub for trains and trucks carrying grains and produce, but has lost two supermarkets, a bank and a clothing factory in recent decades. Some shops in the town square are empty.
“It’s disheartening to see a city so open to all and welcoming new businesses into storefronts that are being mischaracterized,” Parks said. “We have several Haitian companies, so it wouldn’t make sense that this one was targeted.”
Bastien and Benoir said they were chosen.
“We did everything we had to do,” Bastien said.
The couple came to the US in the 2000s and were granted asylum after fleeing this hemisphere’s poorest country. Benoir is a US citizen, while Bastien is a permanent resident.
They initially worked in a poultry processing plant. But in 2019, the couple opened the Eben-Ezer Variety Market in Parksley.
The food truck opened on the store’s premises in June after the couple passed a state health inspection and obtained a $30 business license, according to their lawsuit. But Nicholson, the council member, reportedly complained that the food truck would hurt restaurants that buy equipment from his appliance store.
Nicholson cut the water main, causing $1,300 worth of tainted food, the lawsuit said, and then tried to block a food shipment and shouted, “Go back to your own country!” when Bastien confronted him.
Nicholson declined to comment.
In October, Parksley City Council approved a ban on food trucks except for special events. Mayor Frank Russell said this would not affect the food truck until the one-year business license expired.
But Parksley’s position changed after the Institute for Justice raised concerns, the lawsuit said. The city claimed that food trucks have always been illegal under zoning laws and threatened fines of $250 per day and 30 days in jail for every day the food truck remained open.
The couple quickly closed the city’s only permanent food truck, which now sits empty.
“We are waiting to see what justice we will get,” Bastien said. “And then we’ll see if we open again.”
The couple’s lawsuit seeks compensation for $1,300 in tainted food, financial losses and attorneys’ fees. They also want nominal damages of one dollar for violations of their constitutional rights.
Disputes over food trucks in America date back to the 1970s, says Ginette Wessel, a professor of architecture at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.
Restaurants often accuse food truck vendors of following their own rules, while immigrants may be given the impression that they are doing something unsanitary or illegal.
Wessel said lawsuits often end in a compromise: “The (food trucks) get restrictions, but not elimination. Or the city will back off and say, ‘Okay, we can negotiate.’
Meanwhile, the region’s Haitian community continues to grow as more people work in the poultry industry, said Thurka Sangaramoorthy, an anthropology professor at American University who studies the area’s immigrant populations.
U.S. Census figures show that 600 people identify as Haitian in Accomack County, and several thousand more on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and Lower Delaware. Sangaramoorthy said the Haitian population in the region is likely in the tens of thousands.
She said Parksley’s Haitian food truck offered something essential — familiar foods that remind people of their homeland — to people who often worked long hours.
“It’s a community that is triple-marginalized for being foreign, black and speaking Haitian Creole,” Sangaramoorthy said. “They feel like they have to keep to themselves, so it’s surprising that this couple had the courage to even file a lawsuit.”