Yesenia Ramdass, a native New Yorker from Washington Heights and from a Dominican heritage, and her husband Randy Ramdass, who is Trinidadian and came to the U.S. at age 8, started several restaurant pop-ups, and have just opened a brick-and-mortar plant-based Trinidadian and Dominican eatery HAAM in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The name HAAM conveys its New York attitude, in its name and food.
HAAM is an acronym that means Healthy As a Motha. Some people might be offended by the name, which sounds edgy or street-smart. But Yesenia Ramdass sees it differently.
She coined the name HAAM as a “reflection of her status as a mother raising my three young children in a vegan lifestyle.” And she also gives a nod to her mother-in-law who influenced her cooking style and her own mom (who is no longer alive) who inspired her to continually learn. And it refers to Mother Earth, referring to how plant-based food is better for the earth.
She describes the menu at HAAM as “being both Trinidadian-and-Dominican-inspired. I’ve focused on trying to balance both cultures of each island.” Randy chimes in with, “We’re trying to bring a modern twist to Caribbean food. For example, our vegan oxtail.”
A new eatery HAAM is trying to prove that vegan and Caribbean food can find an audience in trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
When they started out, they learned the business by becoming involved in numerous New York City food halls and markets including Uptown Night Market, Latin Night Market and NY City Wine and Food Festival, before being accepted by trendy Smorgasburg in Brooklyn.
Most of all, they learned to adjust to the “bustling pace” of running a food kiosk, experimented with marketing strategies and gained live feedback from customers on what resonated with them, Yesenia explains.
The most popular dishes ordered are sweet plantain boat (Dominican), bake and shark (Trinidadian) and empanadas trio of plant-based beef, chicken and cheese and guava and cheese (Trinidadian). “You can’t go wrong with plantains,” she adds.
Not Your Usual Caribbean Food
HAAM’s menu goes against the grain of most Trinidadian cuisine, which relies on stewed chicken, curried goat, oxtail, in addition to pelau, a popular rice dish. But its menu is 100% vegan food. Randy points out that they emphasize using whole foods, such as taking the vegetable, grilling, charring or seasoning it, such as using jerk seasoning on broccoli.
Husband and wife share duties running it: she who is 33-years-old serves as executive chef and he, who is 37-years-old, oversees operations, dealing with vendors and staff.
Even capitalizing their eatery in pricey Brooklyn underscores how they were all in to get HAAM off the ground. They sold their home, which raised about 65% of the $350,000 start-up money required and then added $100,000, based on money saved from vending at food festivals.
Before they brought in investors, “it was vital to us that our foundation was solid and purely reflective of our vision as a plant-based family of five,” she explains.
They started by opening a cloud kitchen in Sunnyside, Queens in September 2021 to test the waters and see if Trinidadian/Dominican vegan food could find an audience. They leveraged their social media channels to get the word out. “Within the first 15 months of our cloud kitchen, we saw a steady growth of our customer base,” she notes.
That convinced them to open a brick-and-mortar space. They chose Williamsburg for two reasons: they found a fair market rent and knew that there were over 10 dedicated vegan eateries in the neighborhood. It seats 30 people inside, with six at the bar, and has outdoor seating in the warmer months.
But their restaurant, Randy acknowledges, is located in an area off-the-beaten track in Williamsburg. “We’ll be a destination restaurant,” he says. And they use targeted ads on Tik-Tok and Instagram to reach people of certain ages in nearby zip codes.
She expects that off-premises will be a major component of its revenue, contributing as much as 60% of it, including tapping the gamut of delivery services.
Lunch should average $25 to $35 per person without alcohol, and dinner about $50 to $70 a person, without alcohol.
They describe their target audience as people who are vegan-curious, mostly millennials, Gen-Zers, and trends more female and 19 to 40 years old.
Having started pop-up restaurants including at Smorgasburg food market in Brooklyn and cloud kitchens, they developed a social media mailing list of 20,000 followers, which helps get the word out of their opening.
They’re also trying to create a Caribbean-style atmosphere through what Yesenia calls its three pillars: culture, spices and vibes. “We want to play Caribbean music and encourage everyone to have a good time,” she adds.
HAAM is also sending a message. Randy says, “There’s more to the Caribbean than beaches and palm trees. And it’s not all about frying fish. We’re merging Latino empanadas with chutney. That’s Caribbean too.”