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 email@example.com.