Long before it was a “thing” to have a “slash” career, Andy Shallal boasted several careers to his name. The Iraqi-American owner of the popular local restaurant chain, Busboys and Poets, Shallal has been an entrepreneur, artist, political activist… even a politician.
Oddly, he started his career working as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Shallal eventually turned to the restaurant world, which he says lets him serve as “a psychiatrist, a confidant, all kinds of things—because everybody has to come and eat.” He deliberately established Busboys and Poets as a place for people to gather, to debate, to learn and yes, to eat.
In preparation for his visit to the University of Maryland next Tuesday, College Park Scholars interviewed Shallal about his career transitions, activism, and why food and art go hand in hand to feed a community. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q1: So, perhaps the obvious question: How did you go from doing research at the NIH to the food business?
I went into research seeing it as this incredible opportunity, with the ideal to “find a cure” for something—but the reality was very different. There was a lot of politics involved, and the things that were happening [in that space] didn’t jibe with me. There came a moment where I felt discouraged, and I realized this was not going to be a lifelong profession, for me.
I decided to wait tables, because that’s what you do when you need cash: You do what you have to do. And I discovered a world of restaurants that I enjoyed, and I was good at it. I loved making people happy and taking care of them and having them come when they have problems.
Food is very, very important—it’s a great way to connect with different types of people. I thought, “Well, maybe this is something I can do.”
Q2: You mentioned not loving the level of politics you found in research, but you’ve never shied away from incorporating politics into your work. Can you speak to what the difference is?
I’ve always been an activist, ever since I was a kid—I was an environmentalist, and then an anti-war activist during the Reagan Administration. Having grown up outside of this country for part of my life and seeing how the impact of U.S. policies has on other countries—it definitely opens your eyes differently.
Later, I was the Virginia state co-chair of a presidential campaign, so I really got to know a lot about [how politics work]. And I found that people are often operating from a lack of information. People make voting decisions with that lack of information. If we’re able to inform people, then we can help them make better decisions. Sometimes even when it comes to politics and elections, we tend to tune out. Elections matter; elected officials make decisions. You can’t just do the work from the trenches.
So I founded Luna Books and Democracy Center as a space to help foster that kind of informing. It attracted lots of really significant people from different movements, from labor to social justice to education. And I took it from there to expand it into what Busboys and Poets is today, [where] we create opportunity for dialogue. [editor’s note: At Busboys and Poets, Shallal regularly responds to current events in real time and engages his staff in conversations around race and bias as part of employee training. He observes: “Race is the elephant in the room in almost every room in America, and we need to delve into these conversations honestly and openly.”]
Q3: Busboys is very much a multi-use space, an arts space. Why was that such an important thing for you to create?
I like experiences! You can go almost anywhere and get a good hamburger nowadays. People want experiences, to feed not just their bellies, but feed their minds, their souls, their aspirations, their dreams… [it is] a space to come in and take a deliberate pause from the day to day of running around and getting things done.
We want people to come in and take a breath and experience multiple things. Not everybody may want to read a book; people may want to see a show or look at something on a wall. Having all these layers allow for interaction with different types of people who are looking for different experiences. Those interactions can bring people together in way that just coming in to dine doesn’t.
Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal will discuss food, political activism, entrepreneurship and more with Professor Psyche Williams-Forson, chair of American Studies at the University of Maryland, at “MIGRATIONS: Conversations on food, art and cultural fusion,” Tuesday, March 5, 4:30–6 p.m., in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall of The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. The event will also feature Filipino-American spoken word artist Regie Cabico, with a light reception to follow in the lobby. The event is a Do Good Dialogue from College Park Scholars, The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and the Year of Immigration.