In September I spent several days in a row flagrantly parking at expired meters in downtown Washington, D.C., in hopes of earning a pink badge of courage tucked under my windshield wiper. Each day was unsuccessful. Finally I dug in my purse for a months-old speeding ticket from Virginia and headed to northeast Washington, hoping it would be good enough. I was hungry.
My destination was one of the two branches of Caribbean Citations, a small, very yellow carryout restaurant that sits next to a vacant storefront. The menu is the same as at the sister (and older) location in southeast Washington: curry goat, king fish, jerk chicken, oxtail and other Jamaican staples.
What makes these eateries unique, however, is not what they do with the menu but with the check:
Caribbean Citations helps people turn parking tickets and moving violations into a couple of bucks knocked off the price of a meal.
This gimmick catches people’s attention in a city that has planned its fiscal 2019 budget around extracting $152 million in parking, automated speeding and red-light camera fines and forfeitures from drivers — a conservative estimate based on the city’s $199 million haul for fiscal 2016.
I needn’t have worried about whether my Virginia parking ticket would be acceptable. The management welcomes tickets from any state or country, said owner Michael Sterling. He’s gotten one from England that a tourist just happened to have in her purse. The citations can also be for almost anything.
“It can be a jaywalking ticket; we don’t care. People come in with their tickets to go to court for criminal activities, urinating in public, whatever,” he said. He doesn’t rule out discounts for arrest warrants or murder charges, though so far they’ve only been as serious as a DWI.
“I’m looking at the person who got the ticket,” he says. “They’re having a bad day. We put a little Band-Aid on it.”
Sterling writes a note on the ticket in green marker, so it can’t be used again. In return, he presents a deep pink ticket to enter in the monthly raffle. If your ticket gets picked, they’ll pay the fine, up to $100. About a quarter of his customers bring in a ticket, Sterling said. My ticket shaved $1 off my $16 tab.
The 46-year-old tells me he got the idea after he had his own run-ins with parking enforcement upon moving to the area in 2011. He had come from Jamaica by way of Detroit.
“I am a good driver. I had a spotless, clean record when I arrived here,” he said. Sterling’s biggest ticket came from a speed camera — $150 for driving 16 miles over the limit.
He also knew how to cook, and now he had a concept. “I said, ‘Man, it’s a lot of people getting tickets here.’ It’s a big market of people. It’s my little niche.” He opened Caribbean Citations four years ago in a small, stand-alone building in a rapidly gentrifying part of southeast Washington.
Qua McKoy, 24, who has worked there for three months, said someone comes in with a ticket at least once a week. “People will come in, not know the concept, and go back to their car to see what they’ve got,” she said.
The ticket discount undoubtedly serves to get people in the door, which can be a struggle as the neighborhoods around Sterling’s locations change quickly. But there is also a Robin Hood quality to the concept — linked to a sense of righteous indignation about what the city does with the money it makes on citations.
“We have all these developers,” said Sterling. “The city is giving millions of dollars to these projects, but the small mom-and-pop shops, it’s a struggle to survive.”