Good Food With A Side Of Social Justice

Andy Shallal, owner of the popular Busboys & Poets restaurants in the D.C. metro area, is much more than a restaurateur. The latest Washington Post Magazine chronicles how Shallal promotes his political interests, while creating a successful business model. Host Michel Martin speaks to Shallal.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine, something we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. And, today, we have a story about entrepreneurship and activism.

Now, many business owners have at least tried to make the transition from business success to politics. Presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Herman Cain come to mind. But few have intertwined activism with their business model like Andy Shallal, the owner of D.C.'s Busboys and Poets restaurant chain.

A naturalized Iraqi American, he is the improbably proprietor behind a chain of restaurants inspired by the famed African American poet, Langston Hughes, and he's probably the only major restaurant owner in Washington who has been feeding the Occupy protesters and has been arrested in front of the White House to stop an oil pipeline.

And Andy Shallal is here with us now. Welcome to the program. I should say, welcome back, because we've spoken to you before...

ANDY SHALLAL: Yes.

MARTIN: ...just to get your insights as a small business owner dealing with the recession and how you're coping. But this is a whole other story that I have to confess I knew nothing about. Were you reluctant to kind of open up the pages of your own story?

SHALLAL: Well, you always open yourself up for errors when you start telling a lot about your inside, how you think. You know, most people in the restaurant business or any business don't really like people to know what they think. They're selling a product and that's all they want. They want people to come buy their product.

You know, I'm an activist first. My family moved to this country in 1966 for some very important values about this country, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly. All of these things are very significant for me and I take them very seriously. When we decided to stay in this country, I wanted to make sure that I'm in a country that really does espouse those values that we decided to move here for from Iraq.

So when I see those values being trampled upon or being changed or somebody's trying to put out a patriot act that has a little bit of fascism laced in it, I feel an obligation that I have to stand up and speak up against it.

I remember the very important poem of Langston Hughes that I read as a child. Let America Be American Again. That's what I'd like to do is let it be the dream the dreamers dreamed. I want to be one of those dreamers and continue that dream.

MARTIN: Tell me the connection between the title of the restaurants, Busboys & Poets, and Langston Hughes.

SHALLAL: Well, it's named after Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy while writing poetry here in the 1920s in Washington, D.C. and he was an inspiration, I think, to me on many different levels from the time I was a child until I found a space to name after him.

MARTIN: And now, it's Busboys & Poets.

SHALLAL: Right.

MARTIN: Hopefully, including others.

SHALLAL: Right. I mean, you know, Langston Hughes opened up the floodgates to so many activists. He was an activist poet. He really spoke about important things and the values that he wanted to see this country hold up to.

MARTIN: You alluded to the fact that you said that, sometimes - particularly when you first started, there were people who were suspicious of you. You know, why? Because you're not African American? Because you're Iraqi American, or why? Or just because they don't understand whether the whole, like, politics thing is just a way to get people to buy sandwiches?

SHALLAL: Well, I think we are a little bit confused in this country. The idea that, if you're successful, it means you did it on the backs of somebody else or you hurt someone in the process. I think success tends to come with its own, you know, jealousy, haters, whatever. You know, that happens. It's real and I know that. I think most people know that, but you know, people are always wondering when you're doing something and you're doing it well - they wonder if you have other things in mind. They wonder what your intention is. They wonder what's your drive behind it.

I hope the article that came out in Washington Post can explain some of that. You know, I'm not a uni-dimensional person. I'm multi-dimensional, as many people are. I've had many types of restaurants in the past, but always focusing in terms of how can I get to this point that I'm in today? And that is a point where I can have an impact through the businesses that I have. An impact that fits my soul, that fits my very essence of my being. And that is I'm a progressive, I believe, in moving ideas forward. I believe in equality. I believe in fairness. All of those things are very important to me and I want to promote them, not only through what we say, but through what we do in the restaurant business.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Andy Shallal. He is an activist, artist and owner of the popular Busboys & Poets restaurant group here in the Washington, D.C. area. He's featured in this week's Washington Post magazine.

The Occupy protests have kind of crystallized this idea of there's the 99 percent and then there's the one percent, you know, that the business and political structure are all serving that one percent and then there's the 99 percent. But you're the business guy.

SHALLAL: Yes.

MARTIN: You're the business guy, but you don't see yourself that way?

SHALLAL: I really don't. I don't see myself as a businessman. I see myself as an activist. You know, business is my tools, my vehicle to reach a wider audience and, of course, nothing better than the food business to reach the largest number of people because everybody eats.

MARTIN: I just want to play a clip here. This is from when you first joined us on the program in 2008. You were opening a third location of Busboys & Poets and the reason we called you is that it's the middle of the recession. This is the middle of the period in which people understood that there was a recession and that many small businesses were starting to really feel the pain.

And I asked you why you thought Busboys has been such a successful business and this is what you had to say. Here it is.

SHALLAL: For one thing, we're not just a restaurant. We're a lot of different things. We are a book store, a gathering place, a community center. You know, people have to go out. People eat out. I don't think anybody cooks at home anymore, so they have to go someplace, but it has to be accessible. It has to be reasonably priced. You have to give a good product and you have to give them a reason to come. And we give them many reasons so that I think that's why we have such a loyal base, a loyal clientele.

MARTIN: And that's what you said in 2008 and, three years later, you've opened up two new restaurants, for a total of five, in the Washington, D.C. area alone, in three states, the tri-state Washington, D.C. area. And you've had requests to consider other cities, so I really have to ask you. Did you really sit at home and say to yourself, gee, I'm an activist. I should open a chain of restaurants so people have a place to get together and talk about the things that I care about. Or was it a different way?

SHALLAL: I actually did. I actually did. You know, this was years ago. I used to be the campaign chairman for Jerry Brown years ago, back in the early '90s. And when it was clear that Jerry wasn't going to win, I think his ideas had to stay and live. And I had a friend in Ralph Nader, and I sat and chatted with him and he and I talked at length about the idea of how can we promote these amazing ideas in a way that's accessible and easy for people to sort of take?

And we decided the idea was to put these places that are called, like, democracy centers that have a whole slew of bits of information about voter registration, about how a bill becomes a law and put them in malls and, like, shopping centers. And that's where people are, so they go and get more involved, more civically active.

And, of course, I didn't pursue that route, but I did pursue the route of saying, let's establish these places that will become, basically, civic centers, sort of town squares for the public so that they all come together and be able to share ideas together.

And, of course, having food is essential, because that's what brings people to the watering hole. Once they get there, lots of stuff can happen. Exchange of ideas and thoughts, and all kinds of things can take shape and, you know, we present them with a huge menu, not just of food, but of food for thought.

MARTIN: Do you ever feel - forgive me if I'm just - I feel that we've talked enough that I can ask you these things. Do you ever feel like now that you are as successful as you are, do you ever think, I could be Herman Cain and maybe like the head of Godfather's Pizza.

SHALLAL: God forbid. That's not - no. I don't have any real political aspirations in that sense. I'm not looking to run for office. I think what I do is much more effective, much more in line with, certainly, my values and the way that I like to do things. I think, running for office, you have to, sort of, give up so many things that you otherwise don't have to do when you're running your own business.

MARTIN: Andy Shallal is an activist, artist and owner of the Washington, D.C. area's popular Busboys & Poets restaurant group. He is the focus of a profile in this week's Washington Post magazine. The piece was written by David Montgomery. It's called "Democracy's Restaurateur" and he was kind enough to join us today in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Thank you so much for joining us.

SHALLAL: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, as college kids wrap up finals and head home for the holidays, some will be wondering if they'll be back at school next semester. The risk of dropping out runs particularly high for minorities and first generation students of all races who don't know how to navigate the system.

MARCIA CANTARELLA: As a parent, you're hearing silence. Then, maybe that's a reason to ask questions. Have you been to the career office? Have you made a plan with your advisor?

MARTIN: Our moms panel offers advice about helping keep kids in school and on track to graduate. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: She is an Olympic gold medalist, but today, she's dedicated to helping other people stay healthy, which is sometimes even a challenge for herself.

DOMINIQUE DAWES: At 35 years old, I look at myself in the mirror and I do see a 35 year old body forming and I love it, but I know that I need to get out, not only for my physical health, but also for my emotional health.

MARTIN: Three time Olympian, Dominique Dawes, is with us next time on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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