Busboys and Poets: Restaurant meets Social Enterprise

Anas ShallalThe undercurrent of responsibility to one’s local community pretty much sums up the mission of a social enterprise. It also sums up Anas Shallal’s four restaurant branches of Busboys and Poets across the Washington, DC metro area. Busboys and Poets operates on a mission: socially engage with people on issues over socially responsible food. Although Shallal runs a business, his enterprise represents a trend that goes beyond the activist mind-set. Meet the 21st century social enterprise founded by an active American Muslim. Busboys & Poets is not venture geared towards inter-faith building, but rather, community building. Shallal’s social enterprise has a created a new space between the private and non-profit sectors that have activated global citizens beyond clicking “Like” on a cause listed on Facebook.

Moreover, Shallal’s social enterprise would never need to apply for funding because his hybrid model has addressed two problems in activist culture: a) activist exhaustion, and b) donor fatigue. Crusading for any cause becomes increasingly difficult when financial sustainability relies on the grant process.

All four Busboys & Poets locations operate with the spirit of community in mind. An Iraqi-American, Anas Shallal deliberately selected the U Street/Columbia Heights neighborhood in Washington, DC because it represents much of the social, racial, and artistic challenges he observed while growing up in the DC metro area. “I never considered myself part of the mainstream…” Burgeouise DC residents avoided the neighborhood since the 1968 race riots–even though the neighborhood contains much historical significance. U Street/Columbia Heights was home to DC’s hub of jazz culture and theater; it was the birthplace of Duke Ellington.

Race is one of the most significant issues that have kept this country from achieving its real potential. The best solution: address it and talk about it.” Shallal does not let the patron forget that. Nor should they as they see murals of these influential artists and thinkers in the seating areas.

Global, contemporary art does not make an exception to fill the pockets of the middle man. In keeping with Busboys & Poets’ belief in fair trade, two locations partnered with the Global Exchange to run a fair-trade store of handicrafts from the around the world. In another location, Shallal partnered with Teaching for Change, another non-profit to make books on activism and socially conscious topics available to the public. Despite the trend of mainstream bookstores shutting down in the across America, esoteric titles that document racially-charged experiences and identity will still populate Busboys’ adjoining bookstore. At Busboys & Poets, the socially conscious reader is exposed to thinkers, like Maya Angelou, Cornell West, Ahmed Rashid and countless others, who advocate social justice and political participation.

Shallal explains how his position against the Iraq war did not emanate just from his Iraqi heritage. Rather, his pacifism challenges the idea of the military-industrial complex, “the focus of our economy and glorification of our culture is constantly having to be a warrior…wars are made out of warriors where we continue to create psychological conditions and create situations where we are complicit.”

Busboys does not operate within a community bubble either: as a globally social enterprise, B & P is a proud supporter of the United Nations Children’s Fund. Perhaps that is why one of CODEPINK’s founder’s, Madea Benjamin, stated that, “Busboys & Poets has been a godsend for the last ten years to help us in our mission on social justice issues” whether it be holding events on local DC gentrification or national concerns of war spending. Founded in 2002 by Jodie Evans and Madea Benjamin, CODEPINK has been “waging peace” as one of the largest, grass-roots, peace and justice movements. Benjamin continues, “I’m grateful to Andy for providing a public-private space to hold our regular meetings and educate on issues like the civilian deaths resulting from drone attacks” in an interactive setting where Busboys’ patrons are diverse.

Beyond the Buzzwords

Busboys, like many social enterprises, must grapple with what the “buzzwords” of social responsibility and capitalist ventures represent since they do conflict with one another. More importantly, Busboys recognizes that many businesses are great at promoting their eco-friendly and socially responsible practices, but do not necessarily live up to the standards. Therefore, Busboys earned “B Corporation” status, which differentiates between “goodness” and “just good marketing” on the environmental performance and legal accountability areas.

A social enterprise influences more than its environment; it raises the standard for best business practices. In both 2010 and 2012, Busboys has earned Washington City Paper’s “Best of DC” award. Shallal’s establishment is a member of “Think Local First” which supports DC’s local, independent business. Shallal incorporates many of the social responsibility precepts of Ralph Nader and social justice beliefs from Langston Hughes.

Shallal’s social enterprise takes the local talent, advocates, and thinkers to the next level by offering a platform through book chats, open mic for poetry and comedy, and documentary screenings. Each location includes its own staging area. Despite coming from one of the most artistic cities, New York musician Stephen Said, argues that, “There may be no other venue in the entire United States that has so successfully created a haven for hipster day and night-life and socially conscious art and activism as Busboys…Andy Shallal has helped foster an intelligent, engaged community for the global generation that is grappling with a complex reality…and by simultaneously giving a stage [for] their voices to improve our society.”

Cannot Be Neutral on a Moving Train”

Shallal’s mentor, Howard Zinn, advised that one “cannot be neutral on a moving train”. American Muslim comedians, like Preacher Moss and Said Durrah, agree. Busboys facilitates an honest, open forum, which is one of the reasons why they return to perform for charitable causes and share their experience with race in America. Durrah commends B&P for taking up unpopular causes or positions “because of what they feel may happen to their business, Busboys and Poets and owner Mr. Shallal have flipped the script and made it their business.” Busboys influenced Durrah’s style, “As a new comedian, I often hit the stage hoping to tighten the bolts on my act but now I hit the stage to stand up for what I believe in and stay involved with my community here and communities abroad. Andy built that, and I will always applaud him for it.”

Because of Shallal’s successful model, he receives invites to speak about social enterprises. Recently he delivered a speech that would not accept the status quo of racial divisions, elitism, and DC provincialism: “We have to become a multi-issue community…we need to get more involved in society at different levels…if I’m going to be living in this country [USA] then I need to hold this country to the values it stands for.”

Sometimes fighting a cause warps into a battle in fighting self-doubt and cynicism. Shallal has participated in organized protests and was arrested for peacefully demonstrating against another American war. How does Shallal maintain such optimism and not become cynical when undertaking controversial issues, like campaign-finance reform, or unpopular causes, like Occupy AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Council) in the heart of our nation’s capitol? He gently reminded me that each cause “has its moments” and that engaging in consistent activism helps fight cynicism because others will join.

Owning an establishment means owning a problem. As we preach to other countries‘ budding entrepreneurs to take ownership, the advent of social entrepreneurs own both an establishment and own up to its community’s challenges. Denver and New York have approached Shallal to expand their operations and share more than just the spirit of American activism because as Shallal explained, “A seat at the table may serve the person sitting there, but too often it does not serve the people they represent.” Because Busboys provides a table, a stage, and an activist atmosphere, Shallal actualizes a social enterprise.

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    Mehrunisa Qayyum

    Mehrunisa Qayyum is the founder of PITAPOLICY

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