People still buy a bake and shark sandwich when they go to Maracas Beach, but for most of the six vendors sales have dropped significantly since their temporary relocation almost a year ago.
About two weeks ago a vendor received letter from a county medical officer (CMO) of the Health Ministry, ordering their relocation within 14 days because they were "in the immediate vicinity" of a sewer treatment plant.
Copies of the appendix page, which has no date or stamp but which was signed by a CMO, were then shared with the other five affected bake and shark vendors.
Willing to comply with the order, the vendors made a public appeal for help since the permanent booths weren't ready yet. Following reports in late May about the eviction notice, assurances were given by Works Minister Rohan Sinanan, via a television interview, the vendors would have been given access to completed booths on May 28.
Works is the line ministry for the National Infrastructure Development Company Ltd (Nidco) which is overseeing the booth project. Once completed, they will be handed over to the Tourism Ministry and then leased to vendors.
The sewer treatment plant serves Maracas Beach specifically. A new one is being built behind the new car park across the road, following which the current one – not too far from the lifeguard offices on the beach – will be shutdown.
Business Day contacted officials at the ministry and Nidco about these matters but up to press time, no responses were forthcoming.
When Business Day visited Maracas Beach on June 5, the vendors were still in their temporary location, not sure when they would finally get into their permanent booths.
Asked why they'd been placed so close to the sewer plant, a few vendors shrugged their shoulders, saying it didn't seem like Nidco out any proper planning into the matter when choosing the site or designing the layout of the temporary booths.
The most popular of them, Richard's Bake and Shark, had a steady stream of customers that day. However, there were sporadic sales at Patsy's Bake and Shark, Mom's Bake and Shark, Natalie's Bake and Shark and at Asha's Bake and Shark. Uncle Sam and Son's Bake and Shark wasn't open while Business Day was there – one person said it would open later in the day.
Many people believe what make a bake and shark sandwich so tasty are the dressings. Most locals put everything – tamarind sauce, garlic sauce, chandon beni sauce, ketchup, pepper sauce, salad dressing, mustard, pineapple slices, lettuce, tomato, sliced cabbage and red onion.
As a couple dressed their sandwiches purchased from Patsy's, employee Lydia Whiskey told Business Day it's like operating from a plywood booth with a tarpaulin for shade over their customer seating area.
"Business real slow since they put us here. They build these booths and the permanent ones without consulting us. The layout is not ideal – the windows in the new booths facing the sea, so sand will be blowing into the food – and when people driving by, it will be hard for them to tell if we open. We used to get a good few sales from people headed home after a day at Las Cuevas. As it is, they can't really tell if we open and when we move into the new ones, it will be almost the same. Things real bad."
Whiskey's fiancé Elwin Hernandez chimed in at that point, declaring "business bad!"
"Sand, flies, health inspectors saying we have to move. Is real challenges we facing over here," Hernandez said, to which Whiskey nodded in agreement.
Hernandez estimated Patsy's had seen a 50 per cent drop in sales in the roughly 11 months since they had been moved into a small cluster next door to the lifeguard offices at Maracas Beach.
Vendors declined however to provide specifics about food costs, weekday and weekend sales at their previous location versus the current one, citing fears for their safety.
One vendor said, "I ent feeling safe to say how much we making a week. Next thing some criminal element decide it make sense to target us."
Another vendor echoed this sentiment, saying he "would not like to put that kind of financial information out there."
Once they do move, vendors will have to pay more rent. Under the now defunct Tourism Development Company, vendors occupied circular booths – two per booth – paying $400 a month. This included electricity and water.
Although vendors have not had to pay rent while in their temporary accommodation – first in the car park and now on the beach – once they move into the new booths, rent will increase significantly.
President of the Maracas Beach Vendors Association and owner of Natalie's Bake and Shark, Festus Imasekha told Business Day "about four of the 11 new booths will be single occupancy. Rent at these will be $2,000 a month, inclusive of water. Electricity will be a separate cost."
Double occupancy booths will be $1,200 a month per vendor. This too will be inclusive of water while electricity bills must be paid by the individual vendors.
Imasekha also said he was informed that Nidco had handed over the booths and the new public washrooms to the Tourism Ministry last week. He expressed hope the washrooms would be opened "in the next two weeks" while vendors are expected to get access to some of the booths this Friday.
One regular visitor to the beach, who gave her name as Nathalie, shared her opinion on the renovation works with Business Day while buying food from Patsy's.
"The design isn't impressive. I'm disappointed. They could have done so much with this renovation. The booths should have had a more creative, colourful look. They look so plain and office-like. The (authorities) could have put in lockers too, for visitors to secure their belongings, especially for people who here alone."
Commenting on Nathalie's point about the creamy-yellow, square buildings looking like mini offices, Whiskey said, "I believe we could repaint the booths once we get to move in. Make them stand out."
Lamenting the lack of seating outside the new booths, Whiskey said they will most likely have to erect something of their own "because bake and shark is a thing where people like to sit and eat nearby."
"They didn't study that. They didn't study what's best for us, when they were designing all this. They could have paved seating areas for us. We might have to put up tents and arrange seating under them."
Whiskey referred Business Day to Imasekha for more information on the move to get access to their new booths before health officials shut down their operations.
Seated under a white tent on the eastern end of the beach, Imasekha spoke about his ongoing efforts to get the vendors moved in before anyone actually tries to evict them from their current spot.
"I'm dealing with the man in the Ministry of Tourism who is spearheading this whole project. He knows we are scheduled to move on Thursday (today) and from what I was told this morning, we should get into the new booths very, very soon."
Imasekha explained that there was a plan to handover the booths back in February but the ministry couldn't accept them because there were only temporary connections for water and electricity.
"There are about 11 booths in all. Most now have proper connections. The original circular booths will be refurbished and a lottery system used to give out spots to vendors. As they were before, there will be two vendors per circular booth – the space is divided in half."
Turning his attention to the current income from Natalie's, Imasekha echoed the sentiments of Whiskey and Hernandez.
"Since we were moved, sales slowed down a lot. I have a daughter in medical school in Barbados and I have to be sending money to her, but business so slow now where they squeeze us up, I borrowing money to send to her. We under real pressure here."
Needing an additional source of revenue, Imasekha said he had no choice but to re-open his condiments business.
"Under the name Natalie's, we sell everything from pepper sauce to garlic sauce, minced ginger, green seasoning, tamarind paste and tamarind sauce. The products are available in Tru Valu supermarket now and in about two weeks, they'll also be back in Massy Stores. I need to pay back my loans and I have another daughter headed to university. Bills have to be paid."
The renovation of Maracas Beach saw the daily parking fee increase from $10 to $30, something which Imasekha said was leading to lost revenue for the State.
"The old car park held 460 cars. The new one holds 360. Yes, they have space now for mini buses but why would you reduce the capacity of the car park? This is one of the most popular beaches in Trinidad. When they raise the price, people start running from that $30 and parking on the road. So Nipdec (National Insurance Property Development Company Ltd) losing money during the week when people could find space on the side of the road to park."
Criticism was also shared for Tourism Minister Randall Mitchell, who took over from now Sport Minister Shamfa Cudjoe during the April 9 Cabinet reshuffle.
"This is a multi-million dollar project but the new tourism minister hasn't reached here yet. They spent just over $61 million on the new car park, widening the road and putting in a roundabout by the gas station. The sewer plant they building is about $5-to-$10 million, the booths cost about $20 million. The Government needs to get its act together. Oil and gas won't last forever. They need to pay proper attention to tourism and stop treating us like a bastard child," Imasekha declared.
During a brief interview with Business Day, Mitchell apologised for not having visited yet, saying this was due in large part to his work to solve these and other outstanding issues.
"I'm sorry they haven't been seeing me. I've been working to correct all of the issues they raised, among others in the tourism sector. These vendors have been in what was supposed to be a temporary set-up for months now. I need to ensure the booths are in a state of readiness."
Asked when vendors could expect to actually move in, Mitchell said "in short order", before adding, "within a week, week and a half."
"We're pushing to allocate some of the finished ones by Friday to the six vendors who need to relocate urgently. There are two or three booths left to finish. They have electrical, plumbing and in one, a kitchen sink needs fixing/replacing," Mitchell said.
The Maracas Beach Redesign and Restoration Project actually began more than a decade ago, when in 2009, the Cabinet of then prime minister Patrick Manning allocated $233 million towards it.
The TDC was in charge of the project, with Beijing Liujian Construction Corporation winning an international tender to provide design and build services.
Five years later, in 2014, the People’s Partnership administration Kallco the project at a cost of $85 million plus VAT and contingency. The following year, then prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said the budget for the overall project had been reduced to $120 million
After the September 2015 general election, the then tourism minister Shamfa Cudjoe had concerns about the project, which she shared with Cabinet. The matter was referred to the Office of the Attorney General for review, Kallco’s contract was terminated and the matter ended up in arbitration.
The project was divided into phases, with different contractors completing various parts of it.