In Conversation with Andy Shallal, the Immigrant Who Founded Busboys and Poets
By Raisa Aziz, EdibleDC
I arrive a few minutes early for my meeting with Andy Shallal, founder and owner of Busboys and Poets, a well loved chain of community gathering places in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
I’m slightly nervous, perhaps because this assignment hits close to home. I too am an immigrant here, and telling this story feels like a responsibility beyond this single narrative.
Andy - born Anas Shallal - walks in a few minutes after me, calm and charismatic but with a clear sense of ownership and purpose in this space. He smiles, says he is looking forward to talking to me and suddenly the ball is in my court.
“What brought you to the U.S.?” I ask, “what do you remember about your first food experiences when you moved here?”
Andy shares that he is from Iraq and that his father was a diplomat.They moved to the U.S. in 1966 when he was 10 years old.
This feels like something he has explained many times before. But then he pauses, and shares a story about how his mother tried to bargain with the lady at the checkout counter at the supermarket for two days in a row when they first moved to the U.S.
“We were used to bargaining and it was so strange to her that the prices were fixed,” he says with a smile.
I can’t keep back my laughter. After almost ten years in the U.S., I can understand both sides of that funny exchange,
I want to know more about his childhood kitchen - “how has your upbringing influenced the way you cook and think about food?,” I ask.
He goes on to share that they didn’t go out to eat much when he was younger, his mom always cooked. He shares that there was always rice with every meal - “if you didn’t have rice, it’s like you didn’t eat,” he says.
Andy has always loved the smell of cardamom. He recalls the aromatic flavors brewed with tea that would fill up the kitchen. He remembers liking bananas when he first arrived in the country but thinking that peanut butter was weird and that combining it with jelly in a sandwich was even stranger.
Things have changed since then.
“As a restaurateur, I can’t only serve food that I like,” he explains. “I keep a very open mind with food now because people have different tastes and needs”
We return to the interview and I ask, “for those not familiar with your restaurant, how would you describe it?”
“It’s a neighborhood gathering place,” he says. “There is something about having a space where people comes together and break bread. We pride ourselves on diversity and accessibility to a variety of people.”
I bring up the $450 tip incident over inauguration weekend and ask why he thought it gained such attention. He explains that places like Busboys allow us to recognize that it’s possible for people from varied backgrounds to be in one place and share a common experience despite the differences between them. The tip incident was an example of that.
“Diversity does not happen by accident, “ he argues. “It happens through signals like location, price and menu options that tell us whether we are welcome. For example, we serve halal chicken because we have Muslim customers, and we want a variety of vegan and vegetarian dishes on our menu because we have customers with those preferences.“
He goes on to add that there are so many more possibilities when a diversity of people feel welcome in a space. It allows for people who may never interact with each other to do so. That is potential for social change.
I am curious about Andy’s history in the restaurant industry in DC and how Busboys and Poets fits into this. “What unique perspective do you bring to the DC restaurant industry?,” I ask.
Andy’s first few restaurants were all in a DC townhouse - Cafe Luna which did pasta and pizza was on the first floor; Skewers, a Middle Eastern restaurant, was on the middle floor; and a bookstore was on the third.
“The bookstore was a place for activism - that has always been there, and a part of what I do.”
I am intrigued by this intersection of social activism and the food industry. I ask Andy why this is a focus for him and he shares that this has always been a part of the business model.
“I love food and the restaurant business and I especially appreciate the power that such spaces have to convene people, bringing them together to break bread. There is so much opportunity and potential in that moment. They are all here - now what? I don’t want to squander that opportunity to engage.”
He recounts one of the first actions, which was against the damaging of underwater reefs as a result of French nuclear testing. “We wanted to make a point,” he says, “so we crossed out the French wines on our menu and dumped French wine out in Dupont Circle.”
There are several other examples of this, including that in the first Obama campaign, he hosted fundraisers and bussed people out to canvas in Virginia and Ohio during the campaign.
Now that we are more squarely on the topic of social justice, I want to know what led to the decision to close Busboys and Poets for #ADayWithoutImmigrants.
Andy explains that it came together very quickly. A Busboys staff member initially approached him about standing in solidarity with the movement . Given that Andy is also an immigrant, it made sense to do. However, they did not want to simply close the doors without explanation and so, in addition to a press release, there were a few Busboys managers that were present on the day to explain the purpose behind the movement.
I ask Andy what it is that he wants people to know about immigrants in DC, and in the U.S. more broadly. “What is it that’s misunderstood?,” I ask.
Andy provides important historical perspective, sharing that we are currently in the midst of a massive global displacement of people and that issues of immigration and refugees are not just a product of this one point in time.
“Immigrants are seeking refuge and opportunity. Most people don’t want to move, they want to stay in the what’s familiar - their language, culture and families. They leave because they feel like they have to get out - they are looking for safety so imagine when they find the doors closed to them.”
We are nearing the end of our hour together and I still have so much to ask. I know it is an unfair question - who likes to pick favorites but I ask anyway.
“How has DC dining shifted over the years - what are some of your favorite trends?”
Andy shares that he loves the international food options in this city. While there has always been a variety of ethnic food in DC, it is growing and has moved beyond just being a corner store phenomenon.
He stops, smiles and adds - “and of course, good coffee.”
“When I first opened Cafe Luna in 1999, you couldn’t get a decent espresso drink in DC. People are demanding it now and have more sophisticated and international palettes.”
Andy adds that DC has always had a small town feel but it seems that we have recently realized that we are the capital of the USA and want to come into our role more clearly. “We recognize the potential for the DC food industry and that we can actually have an impact.”
Sensing that we are winding down, I ask, “what keeps you in DC? Where do you go for inspiration?”
Andy has a quick and clear response - he talks about his excitement for the flourishing arts scene, especially that culture-makers and influencers have become less institutionalized over the years. He also notes that the amount of activism he sees is inspiring and contagious.
It has always been a part of this city but it is coming together as part of the cultural fabric of DC now.
“More and more people are demanding changes that are better for everybody. Movements like #ADayWithoutImmigrants could only take off that quickly because the foundation had already been established. We know we have a city that is safe and welcoming and we are particularly primed to stand in solidarity with causes like that. I am encouraged by the engagement of young people who are very committed to issues of social justice and ensuring they are not ignored. We are all realizing our power - both as individuals and as a collective."
Vegan Stir Fry
- Vegan chickenless strips-4 oz (Gardein Vegan Products)
- Brown rice-4 oz cooked and warm
- Snow peas-1 oz
- Red onion/julienned-.05 oz
- Shitake mushroom/sliced-.05oz
- Baby carrots-2 pieces blanched and sliced lengthwise into three
- Garlic/minced 1 teaspoon
- Olive oil 1 tablespoon for sautéing
- Sesame ginger orange soy sauce 2 oz for sautéing
Cook Time: 3 minutes
Preparation: 20 minutes
- Add the olive oil to a medium sized ‘hot’ saute pan. Stir frying is quick so make sure all of the ingredients are ready for action. Add the red onion, shitake mushroom and garlic to the pan.
- Briefly allow the garlic to ‘bloom’ as this will help to flavor the dish. Add the ‘chicken’, snow peas and baby carrots and allow to heat through, then add the sauce.
- Place the rice in the middle of a bowl, then assemble with all of the pan ingredients.
- Garnish with scallions or a sprig of cilantro. Enjoy!!
- The sauce can be a variety of many ingredients. We used sesame oil, sesame seeds, soy sauce, orange marmalade, ginger, cornstarch, water, sugar and peach nectar. You can make your version with crushed red pepper flakes, pineapple juice, etc. to make it your own.
- The vegan chickenless strips are soy protein and available in stores (Gardein Vegan Products).
- The veggies listed are suggested but feel free to use whatever you have such as broccoli, red peppers, asparagus, etc. The key is having everything cut approximately the same size for even and fast cooking.
Raisa Aziz (@raisaaziz) is a food stylist, photographer and writer in the DC Area. When not cooking, baking or eating, you can find her bopping about town in search of local adventures.