First, there was the 7.0 quake in George Laguerre's native Haiti , which destroyed houses and businesses of his friends and family. Then, on the night Laguerre was packing for his first trip back to Haiti since the disaster, an electrical fire burned his beloved Echo Park restaurant, TiGeorges.
Asked how he's coping, Laguerre says, “I'm a diehard. I'm going to reopen. This is a temporary setback.”
Sitting at the counter in his charred restaurant, Laguerre stacks up boxes of Haitian coffee beans that he roasted himself and has packed to send around the country for his wholesale business. The comforting smell of Laguerre's chicken has been replaced with the pungent odor of smoke. The place is dusted with ash, and if you look up, you can see a gaping black hole where the flames lapped through the ceiling. The plastic sign out front is melted in place, dripping over the front door.
After the flames subsided and his building was secured, George did go to Haiti, to check in on family, gather footage for a documentary, and begin working on his nonprofit, the TiGeorges' Foundation, which he was inspired to start after the successful fund-raiser he hosted at the restaurant for disaster relief.
“My focus is agriculture,” he says. “I believe agriculture is the backbone of any society. And agriculture has been neglected for decades in Haiti.
“I remember growing up in Haiti. Everyone used to have three fruit trees in their backyard. Today, it's almost a nonexistent situation. I truly believe it's partially responsible for the level of poverty you see. I wouldn't say poverty, but more hunger, because Haiti isn't really a poor country.”
When it comes to disaster relief, Haiti doesn't need food, Laguerre says, adding that the country needs education and guidance to start investing in its local resources.
“Haiti has water and soil. Haiti doesn't need irrigation, because it's a mountainous country and the water goes directly to where you cultivate it,” he explains, his voice rising.
“I'm going to replace those trees in the backyards of Haiti. And I'm going to use the youth and the school-age students to activate that. I will be providing gas burners. Educate them to understand how to use propane. They believe propane can explode, that it's a bomb, that it's a very unsafe thing. These are the things people never talk about in Haiti.”
Laguerre got his start as a restaurant owner by chance. After moving to New York at age 17 with his mother, he attended the School of Visual Arts before heading to Los Angeles with hopes of making it as an actor.
He soon found himself frying chicken at Church's. “That was a little bit upsetting, because my parents didn't like the idea,” he recalls. “Here I graduated from college and 'you're selling chicken?' That didn't sit too well with a Haitian family.”
But if it weren't for Church's Chicken, Laguerre says, he may never have been motivated to start his own restaurant.
Laguerre says his restaurant will reopen, in time, with a new roof and the locals that have mourned its hiatus will return.
Haiti, too, will find its way, he says.
“Once the tents are removed, there's gonna be a vacuum. People are gonna feel that being in a shady area is going to be a necessity. People are going to want to plant a tree in their backyard. And if you plant fruit trees, they produce fruit that can be sold abroad.” “Haiti is the only place that produces mangoes year-round. We are the only country in Latin America to produce the Francis mango. To me, that's a very powerful tool.”