Artist, activist, restauranteur, and creator of creative communities Andy Shallal is the founder of the beloved Busboys and Poets group of restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area.
This week, he opened his newest location, in the historic DC neighborhood of Anacostia. In the midst of the celebration, Shallal took a few moments to talk to me about how he brings the community together with art, books, ideas, and great food.
Where does the name of the restaurant come from?
It comes from the great African-American poet Langston Hughes. He lived in the early part of the 20th century and became known as the “busboy poet.” He was working as a busboy, at the Wardman Park Hotel and one day a very famous poet by the name of Vachel Lindsey came in and Langston Hughes left some of his poetry next to Vachel Lindsey’s plate. Hughes watched Lindsey nodding approvingly as he looked at the writing. And the next day on his way to work Langston picked up a newspaper that said “Vachel Lindsay has discovered a busboy poet,” and that helped to take off his career from that day on.
Your restaurants are more than just a place to go and eat — they are really community centers for conversation and culture.
Exactly. They are, they really are. I have always seen restaurants as a valuable asset to a community, or they can be at least, and that was our intention. So we have a bookstore and events, poetry and panel discussions on various issues that are specific to the community that we are in. We will have some live jazz music here on a regular basis, and we will have authors both for for adults and for children, and children’s storytelling.
Tell me about the Anacostia community, where the new restaurant is located.
The Anacostia community sits on the east side of the Anacostia River. And for many, many years I think the area had been sort of neglected and dismissed by many business and no go-zone. And I think anyone who has been here for any amount of time sees that is a terrible misrepresentation of the community. We really want to see something else happen here, and we want to be able to have services and places to go to that the rest of the city take for granted. A lot of times people ask me like why are you opening a place in Anacostia, and my first answer is, “Why not?”
Are there any special elements of this new location that are specific to Anacostia?
The art definitely reflects the community here. The decor is beautiful and it’s very uplifting. Everything looks nice and new and beautiful. I really want to go out of my way for this place to look at least as nice, if not nicer than the rest of the Busboys and Poets restaurants.
We will have a room named after Marion Berry who was the Ward 8 city council member and mayor of Washington DC. He was a very important factor in DC history and Anacostia. All of the art comes from here. There are tons of artists here and there is even some driftwood art that is from the Anacostia Rivera, so it’s quite beautiful.
Are you creating job opportunities for people from the community?
Yes, of course. We have 80 people that we have already hired and 95 percent of them are from the Anacostia region or from east of the river. These are decent jobs that will give them an opportunity to move up the pay ladder in a very short period time.
Do you have any special program for sustainability the environment in the way you run your operations?
Yes, we do and this is a LEED building that we are in now, and so all of our equipment is LEED-certified. So we have a lot of ways that we really kind of stay on the cutting edge of the environmentally conscious, with 100 percent recycled materials. Our straws are paper and we don’t give them out unless people ask for them. The sourcing of food is really important, to make sure our food is sourced appropriately, and as much as possible locally. All of our meat is local and all of our bread, our chicken, and dairy eggs, all of those things are local from local farms.
Now I am going to ask you a really hard question. What’s your favorite item on the menu?
I am moving more and more towards vegetarian food. So I have been really partial to the cauliflower sandwich, which sounds odd but it’s delicious.
And what’s the best dessert on the menu?
One is our white chocolate bread pudding, which is really delicious. Bread and white chocolate and raisin and it’s served with coconut ice cream so it’s pretty awesome.