Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets, is ‘democracy’s restaurateur’

December 8, 2011

In the suspended moments before the guests arrive — will they arrive? — Andy Shallal sits at the bar of his newest restaurant, Busboys and Poets in Hyattsville, collecting his thoughts and typing them into his ever-present MacBook Pro. At 56, tall and gregarious, he is Washington’s most successful entrepreneur-artist-activist. So few, in any city, excel in all three fields. There is something marshaled and a little tense about his manner.

“My job is to worry,” he says.

Cornel West is among the first to arrive, all the way from Princeton, in a gust of French cuffs, ungoverned hair, inspired riffs and bear hugs.

“My brother Andy!” he says. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

In swift succession follow Bernice Johnson Reagon, Marian Wright Edelman, Barbara Ehrenreich, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, and some 400 other members of the civil rights, antiwar, environmental, labor, arts and academic crowds.

“I’m not nervous anymore,” Shallal says, though he’s still watchful as folks fill the hipster warehouse-style establishment. They’ve come for a heaping helping of cross-racial progressive reaffirmation, marinated in that ineffable Busboys recipe of communal tables and couches, groovy music, quirky slide projections, politically inspired art and a not-too-politically-correct menu.

“Isn’t that Andy’s genius?” author and emcee David Zirin asks the crowd. “At the end of the day, he brings together Thai dipping sauce and radical politics.”

The purpose of this evening in early autumn is fourfold and high-minded to within an inch of its life, as most Shallal productions are. It’s a fundraiser for the Zinn Education Project, based on the work of the late Howard Zinn, a mentor of Shallal’s, whose “A People’s History of the United States” is a touchstone of progressive pedagogy.

It’s also the dedication of the restaurant’s Zinn Room, with its huge mural by Shallal. The work is a collage, Shallal’s signature style, composed of famous dissenters and their words entwined with the four rivers of Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

And it’s the International Day of Peace, so Shallal has everyone fill out postcards with peace messages to President Obama. Finally, the festivities are edged with outrage over the approaching execution of Troy Davis, set for later this night in Georgia.

Drawing on words Shallal typed at the bar, he says to the group: “Tonight is our practical act of peace. We have gathered all of you, our peace community, to share, to inspire, to entertain and to feed. ... To remind ourselves that we are not alone in this never-ending quest.”

Not alone. It could be wishful rhetoric. Or it could be the essential piece of the collage that is Andy Shallal.

***

One of the most improbable business models in restaurant history was greeted with a question.

“Is the owner black?”

Shallal first heard it on Sept. 7, 2005, the day the first Busboys opened at 14th and V streets NW, to almost immediate acclaim, profits and lines out the door.

People didn’t know what to make of this unexpectedly bustling homage to Langston Hughes, just off Washington’s old Black Broadway, the U Street corridor, on the ground floor of a gentrifying condo project called the Langston Lofts. Hughes had been a busboy in a Washington hotel in the 1920s when he famously slipped a sheaf of poems to a white guest, poet Vachel Lindsay, who hailed the young man’s talent.

In the restaurant’s Langston Room, Shallal created his “Peace and Struggle” mural collage, topping it with the words of a Hughes poem.

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be. ...

A restaurant themed around a literary figure was already bracingly different. And, as it turned out, the owner of Busboys was not an African American steeped in the culture and history that inspired Hughes, but a naturalized Iraqi American who had encountered the Harlem Renaissance poet in his summer school English class as a child.

Shallal doesn’t fit the business mold, either.

Any given business owner might, say, get arrested in front of the White House to stop an oil pipeline; or serve breakfasts and dinners to protesters occupying Freedom Plaza; or host a series of searingly honest conversations on race; or write checks for thousands of dollars to liberal causes; or pop over to Cairo to teach free expression through murals to post-revolutionary artists.

Few would do all of the above within a typical four-week period, as Shallal did this fall.

“I don't see myself as a businessman at all,” he says. “I’m an activist, and I happen to be in business.”

It would be one thing if Shallal were merely playing with a crunchy little cafe serving utopia tea. But he is a mogul, in spite of himself. In five years, he opened three more Busboys: in Shirlington, at Fifth and K streets NW, and in Hyattsville. And, on the opposite corner of 14th and V from the flagship, he opened Eatonville, a restaurant tribute to Zora Neale Hurston, another writer from the Harlem Renaissance, who grew up in Eatonville, Fla.

He employs 530 people, full and part time. And now developers are begging Shallal to inject his Busboys magic into their projects in Harlem; Denver; San Francisco; Atlanta; Durham, N.C.; Philadelphia.

“He’s a kind of an animal people have trouble getting their minds around,” says Marita Golden, an African American writer whose Hurston/Wright Foundation for black literature Shallal has supported financially. “How can you possibly be a capitalist and a progressive at the same time?”

With success, though, comes suspicion. Is Andy Shallal sincere? Is he exploiting poets? Is radical politics mixed with black culture just a surprisingly great marketing gimmick?

***

The 11-year-old boy’s first impressions of 1966 America came in colors. The green lushness of the land. The white sameness of the people.

“They looked like they were out of a movie,” Shallal recalls.

He soon met African American classmates at Stratford Junior High School in Arlington, but the suburban American color scheme back then had no ready place for a light-brown boy named Anas — not Andy, yet.

“It was very strange to be in a situation where you’re culturally so out of your element,” he says. Some white students called him a racial slur usually applied to blacks, while “the black girls would ask me, ‘What are you?’ ”

Shallal’s father, Ahmed, had just been appointed the Arab League’s representative to the United States. His mother, Suad, was former deputy superintendent of schools in Baghdad. He had an older brother and a younger sister (another sister would be born here).

On top of the challenge of mastering English, he had a bad stutter.

“Every time you tried to fit into one area, you were kind of ousted,” he says. “So, it was like, ‘Okay, I guess I’ll be alone.’ ”

Art became his favorite class.

The summer before high school, his English class focused on the Harlem Renaissance. He was assigned to read “Let America Be America Again.” He was a good memorizer, but at the time the words were just ambiguous clues.

***

After Ahmed’s term was up, the former diplomat bought a restaurant called Pizza Kaezano — one of those greasy-great places, in an Annandale shopping plaza.

Behind the counter were the Shallal brothers, Anas, 15, and Yasir, 16. This is where they became Andy and Tony. It fit the expectations of customers, who thought they were Italian.

For Andy, the restaurant was a revelation. There, he felt at ease.

“I loved washing dishes. I loved making pizza. I loved mopping the floor. I loved serving customers,” he recalls. “You don’t need to say a lot when you’re serving someone a good meal. It’s like you’re speaking through food.”

His parents considered the restaurant a recourse to make ends meet, not a worthy career. The family plan was for Tony to become an engineer, Andy a doctor.

Tony complied, Andy quit medical school after three courses.

Nothing was working out, including a marriage, at 20, that lasted five years. Two sons from that relationship are now in their 30s.

The exception was restaurants, first as side jobs, then with ambition. To him, a restaurant was never just a restaurant. “Seeing the community that you’re able to build with food was just tremendous.”

In the mid-1980s, he was managing a restaurant inside the Omni Shoreham, when he met a hostess named Marjan Saghafi. She was slim and elegant, the daughter of an Iranian general.

“Andy was strong; he was very good-looking,” she recalls. “He was a perfectionist. If a fork was laid crooked on a table, everyone would say, ‘Oh, my God, Andy will see!’ ”

They married in 1985. Marjan pursued a career in computer programming and is on the board of the Humanities Council of Washington. They live in a Kalorama rowhouse they bought in 2006, now assessed at $1.5 million. Their two daughters are in college.

Around the time he met Marjan, Shallal conquered his stutter — a therapist recommended facing his insecurity by stuttering with abandon, and it worked — and he became a citizen.

“I didn’t want to just live here as an outsider,” he says. “I’m going to get involved at all levels.”

His parallel lives as activist and restaurateur converged over the issue of French nuclear testing in 1995. By then, his kabob restaurant Skewers was cooking in Dupont Circle. Downstairs in the same rowhouse was his Cafe Luna. Shallal put a boycott “X” next to French wine on the menus and dumped Beaujolais Nouveau outside.

“It was really exciting,” he says. “People came out. It created a real sense of community and activism.”

Meanwhile, he had cleaned out the third floor of the rowhouse and started Luna Books and Democracy Center, with a library donated by Ralph Nader.

“I call him ‘democracy’s restaurateur,’ ” Nader says.

Few books or drinks were sold, but a bubbling salon scene evolved. Brother Tony, still an engineer but Andy’s partner at the time, arrived one evening to find a line starting on the third floor and continuing on the sidewalk.

“I said, ‘What are we serving today; what the heck is going on?’ ” Tony Shallal recalls.

Howard Zinn was signing books.

“He obviously just found his wings,” Tony says.

The brothers knew their visions were diverging.

“I was more focused on the business than the romance,” Tony says. “I still think what drives him is the romance. I don’t think he’s really too worried about the business. He thinks it will take care of itself. And it has.”

Splitting from Tony, Andy opened Luna Grill — diner food and politics — then Mimi’s — bistro food and singing servers — both successful and later sold.

Food, art, politics, books, community. He was tinkering with how the pieces fit together.

***

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Shallal’s house was one of the few in his Annandale cul-de-sac without a flag. Flag-waving wasn’t the correct response, for him. When someone anonymously planted a flag on his lawn, he took it inside.

His voice grows husky and his eyes moisten when he recalls the aftermath of the attacks and the start of two wars. “I felt like I’d been let down by a society I thought was a friend — and suddenly I felt very alien,” he says. “I wanted to reconnect somewhere.”

Over the years, at times like that, when America displayed what he considered its contradictions and shortcomings, the words of the poem would come to mind, their haunting song of hope and regret, defiance and yearning.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed — ...

(It never was America to me)

“Suddenly, all that rote learning has a meaning, and you can put context to it,” he says.

The invasion of Iraq energized the left, but “there wasn’t a place where people actually got together socially and culturally to be able to connect. ... I wanted to create a place that was unapologetically progressive.”

He intended it to be steeped in Washington’s identity as none of his other restaurants had been. But he didn’t get the idea to go back to the poet and the poem until he saw the name of the condo project where he proposed his project. The Langston Lofts. Eureka.

“I couldn’t think of a better icon to build around, because that poem is perfect,” Shallal says.

The only way he could convince lenders and landlords was to minimize their risk. He turned to the Small Business Administration to partially guarantee a $2.5 million loan to buy the ground floor of the Langston Lofts.

Busboys was a hit right away. Shallal was so busy he slept in a booth under his mural.

Suddenly, developers believed in radical politics and Thai dipping sauce. They told Shallal he would never have to take out another loan for a new restaurant. They offered to help underwrite the build-outs and let Shallal rent the space.

“Securing Andy Shallal ... makes the rest of the leasing and the rest of the marketing easier,” says Aakash Thakkar, senior vice president of EYA, developer of Arts District Hyattsville.

The suburban restaurants draw almost as diverse crowds as the city ones; all feature a Shallal collage. “He does these beautiful murals, but his real art is his venues as a canvas, and people are his paint,” says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the liberal-activist think tank Institute for Policy Studies, where Shallal is on the board.

Among several out-of-town projects, he has been courted to put a Busboys in a proposed National Jazz Museum near the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Farthest along is a plan for a Busboys to open in early 2013 in Denver’s former Rossonian Hotel, in the city’s historically black business district.

He thought he had done it. Created that ideal space he had been groping toward ever since Pizza Kaezano. A community where outsiders would be insiders and idealistic seekers would not be alone. A restaurant as self-expressive as a mural. A place for Andy Shallal.

***

On a busy Thursday night this past February, a life-size cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes in his busboy’s uniform mysteriously disappeared from the front of 14th and V.

Flat Langston — as the purloined image came to be called — was spotted under a poet’s arm at an annual writers conference in town. Shallal replayed the Busboys security tapes to finger the culprit.

He was Thomas Sayers Ellis, a respected poet and photographer, who said the theft was, in part, a protest of the poor pay ($50) that featured poets received for readings at Busboys.

The episode opened a channel to issues simmering beneath the surface.

“For many of us poets of conscience, poets of color, poets of compassion ... seeing a Langston cutout from that era is not fun or a novelty to us, it is an insult,” poet Fred Joiner wrote in his blog at the time.

Joiner was one of 18 poets who signed a letter to Shallal, arguing that Hughes had written of being “embarrassed” at being trotted out as “a Negro bus boy poet.”

“One could argue that maybe a black operator wouldn’t have put the poster out there,” says poet Kenny Carroll, who did not sign the letter but says it raised legitimate questions. “It was certainly the notion of Andy being an outsider. There’s a notion out there of Andy exploiting black culture to his benefit and not giving enough back to the writers.”

Carroll adds: “I would give Andy Shallal the benefit of the doubt. I never got anything from Andy where it was just about exploiting the culture.”

Poet Kyle Dargan, who signed the letter, says, “I don’t think Andy is insincere. I think in some realms he is uninformed.”

Other factions of poets said the protesters were being silly. In the end, the revolt of the poets sounded mostly like tough love, laced with a demand for credit for what the poets see as their role in making Busboys a success.

Behind a brave public facade, however, Shallal was cut to the core of his self-image. Once again, he felt summarily exiled from a community. This time, his own community.

It was another of many moments “when you feel like an outsider. You feel like you’ve been connected, you’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says. “Suddenly you feel like you’re in this other space.”

He adds: “I don’t think that whole incident would have occurred if I were black.”

He resolved to face more directly an insinuation behind that original question — “Is the owner black?” — namely: “Here’s a person who is not black who is using black culture to advance what agenda he’s got.”

He doubled the pay to featured poets and poet-hosts from $50 to $100 per reading, the highest rate in town. He publicized a new “tribal statement,” mentioning race for the first time — “Busboys and Poets is a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted. ...

He gives speeches on race as the opportunities arise — at a high school graduation, a business roundtable — and promotes conversations on race in the restaurant.

He looks like a man trying to prove himself once again, as if there might always be a question. Yet he seems to relish the effort.

At a recent “race awareness” training in the Hyattsville Busboys, the facilitator brings up the idea that a person’s group identity is a manufactured construct. Shallal raises his hand.

“If you’re in the dominant social group, you don’t notice,” he observes. “If you are in the subordinated social group, you have to notice. In a white club, you don’t notice your whiteness. That’s where change can happen. We are helping redefine what society has imposed on us.”

The previous week, at a 90-minute orientation for new employees, he recounts the creation story of Busboys and Eatonville. It’s indoctrination, trying to invest the employees in a mission more than a restaurant.

A black employee tells Shallal that, when she was hired at Busboys, her boyfriend asked: “Is the owner black?”

A white employee from Eatonville says he sometimes feels presumptuous explaining to black customers the story behind the restaurant, as part of his job: “Who am I to tell you about your culture?”

“Come sit next to me,” Shallal says, laughing. “I hear you, brother.”

***

It’s lunchtime at 14th and V, and E. Ethelbert Miller, the poet and memoirist — dapper in a charcoal jacket, with his fedora beside him — is polishing off a plate of the beans and wild rice, with grilled chicken and guacamole ($12.90).

Shallal isn’t around just now. It’s a couple of days after he welcomed those new employees to the Busboys mission, and he’s checked in to a different crusade — at Freedom Plaza, painting cardboard “dream houses” that say “foreclosed.”

“Something’s happening here where Andy’s pulling in all aspects of the community,” Miller says, gesturing around the dining room. “If we’re looking at models, this becomes one to study.”

The tableau of diners is like a casting call for a we-can-all-get-along! video. Notably, though, each kind tends to stick to its own. A table of black diners next to a table of white diners, and so forth, like a checkerboard.

Busboys is a product of gentrification and a holdout against it, Miller maintains.

“Walk down 14th Street [from Busboys] Friday nights, and the black people disappear,” he says. “This represents more of D.C. than any part of 14th Street now.”

He adds, only half-joking: “The other thing that made Busboys successful is the catfish. The catfish got the black middle class in here. The progressive black middle class.”

The Busboys catfish, its most popular entree, is gentrified soul: “With a lemon butter sauce, served with tomatoes, capers, collard greens, and a corn cake — $15.95.”

As Miller cleans his plate, Shallal bursts into the restaurant for a meeting with the poet on art and politics. He kids Miller for not having been on the plaza with the occupation. “Where were you?”

A few days later, Shallal impulsively decides to serve vegan harira bean soup at dinnertime to roughly 300 occupiers.

He gives instructions to Hicham Baamrani, one of his top lieutenants.

Baamrani, a native Moroccan, started as a Skewers dishwasher. Now he’s director of operations. The others Shallal relies on, all African American, are marketing and communications director Pamela Pinnock, senior administrative strategist Ericka Byrd-Thompson, and Ken Hatter, who started as a server and now is general manager of the flagship Busboys.

Part of Baamrani’s job is executing Shallal’s operational ideals: local organic grass-fed beef at $4.50 a pound, instead of standard hamburger at $2. Cage-free eggs. Biodegradable take-out cutlery. Green cleaning products. Wind-generated electricity.

“Sometimes we pay 100 percent more for cleaning products,” Baamrani says.

Shallal gives space in the restaurant to the bookstore operated by Teaching for Change. Proceeds go to the progressive education nonprofit.

The lowest wage at the restaurants is $10.25 an hour, after a three-month probation at $9.25 an hour. All workers get paid sick leave; full-timers get health care.

“But we still make a profit,” Baamrani says.

Shallal insists there is no trade-off between mission and money, but he makes sure no one misunderstands the enterprise.

“It’s not a charity,” he says. “If we don’t make money, we can’t stay in business.” He also says: “I don’t want sympathy diners. We want people to come here because we are good at what we do.”

***

Late on that autumn night of the Zinn dedication in Hyattsville, after bidding goodbye to West and the others, Shallal drives alone in his gold 2005 MINI Cooper to the Supreme Court.

About 100 people stand in quiet clusters on the sidewalk, huddled around the faint gleam of smartphones playing the news narration of Troy Davis’s last minutes.

Shallal leans in to listen.

“He’s gone,” he says. “We’re living up to our cowboy image.”

In contrast to the festive salutes he enjoyed from the crowd in his restaurant, here he’s all but anonymous, another shape in futile gloom.

“This was useful,” he says, trying to sound a hopeful note while walking back to his car. “When you gather people together, it’s to get a good sense that you’re not alone. Human interaction is what makes change happen.”

The reverie of the activist is shattered by a customer of the restaurateur.

A stout man behind the wheel of an SUV rolls down the window as Shallal passes. He has a tale of woe about the bacon in his potato hash at Eatonville. I’m a Muslim. I don’t eat pork. You never answered my e-mail!

Shallal hears him out, tries to move on. “I apologize,” he says. “I apologize again.”

The man seems satisfied.

Early the next morning, it’s time to deliver those peace postcards made out to Obama by the guests at the Zinn dedication. Shallal wasn’t kidding.

He stands in Lafayette Park, waiting for any allies to join him. Two do, both friends and Busboys regulars. Shallal strides purposefully across Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House gate. Cradled in his arms is a cardboard shoe box that he decorated with a peace sign and the words “Peace Not War.” A couple hundred postcards are inside.

By arrangement, Paul Monteiro, associate director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, meets Shallal, who presents the shoe box. “I’m glad to receive them,” Monteiro says. One of Shallal’s companions snaps pictures.

Shallal had invited the crowd of 400 at the restaurant the night before to make this gesture for peace. Having just these two is better than being alone.

Staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report. David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at montgomery@washpost.com.

David Montgomery writes general features, profiles and arts stories for the Sunday Magazine and Style, including pieces on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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