Circling back: Pearl Island’s Caribbean cuisine gets a boost from Charlottesville Builds

A report by Jennifer Gardiner for C’Ville.

If pigeon peas, plantains, and pikliz jumpstart a craving for you, you’re probably a fan of Pearl Island Foods. The Caribbean-centric food business launched with a booth at Charlottesville City Market in 2014, before moving into the Jefferson School City Center two years later. Sober Pierre, owner and operator of Pearl Island Foods, and Executive Chef Javier Figueroa-Ray operate a small café and catering company, and before the pandemic hit, things were going well.

“The pandemic significantly reduced our catering business, which was the majority of our business,” says Pierre. This meant they had to redirect their efforts toward the café. “The operating constraints required to safely operate amidst COVID-19 has unintentionally forced our café to become a more integral part of our revenue stream.”

The reframing of Pearl Island’s business also required some construction that seemed likely to debilitate the restaurant’s financials. But when the folks at Building Goodness Foundation’s C’ville Builds heard about Pearl Island’s plight, they stepped in.

“We work a lot in the Caribbean in Haiti, and this is the type of food culture we promote, so this circles back because this is the type of project we do internationally,” says Sophie Parson, Building Goodness Foundation’s development and communications manager. “We’re focusing on small businesses and Pearl Island has nine employees. …This is the type of food Pierre and his team are trying to raise cultural awareness of in the community, so it was easy for us to jump on.”

The project will come in two phases, Parson says. The first, which should be completed by the end of the year, will organize the kitchen and storage unit to make it more efficient, since delivery involves storing a large volume of packaging supplies, which take up considerable space.

Pierre says phase two will help to allow food service in the outdoor space at the Jefferson School, with a goal of using this new area to cope with COVID in the present, while keeping the future of the entire building in mind.

“The redesigned outdoor patio is geared more towards post-COVID dining activity,” says Pierre. “However, we are looking forward to creating an outdoor space that is inviting for our customers and for people who haven’t been to Jefferson School City Center, the ‘soul of the city.’ This historically black segregated school is a national landmark that serves as a community center with several nonprofits housed within it. We are happy to serve the community alongside them.”

In addition, Parson says the new area will help extend the outdoor Downtown Mall a bit further. “It makes the Jefferson School that much more attractive, and brings people to the space, so you can, say, drop your kid at the YMCA daycare and have a drink and eat at Pearl Island.”

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