As a 10-year-old immigrant relocated to the Washington area in the late 1960s, Andy Shallal was immediately struck by America’s racial dynamic.
The 66-year-old Iraqi-American created Busboys & Poets as a way of welcoming all to his restaurant for the sacred experience of eating together.
“I thought, ‘this country is crazy,’ ” Shallal said of his first impressions of America.
“I remember in high school and middle school having to choose [my race]. I had no idea. The teacher chose what I was. The obsession of race holds for me as well.”
Shallal has found a welcoming community in Columbia — the site of ninth and largest location of Busboys & Poets, a restaurant that pays homage to many of Shallal’s friends, whom he considers activists. “These are people that I have known for most of my life. Being an activist, you connect with people who are like-minded,” he explained. “It’s not about being Black, it’s about being conscious.”
Shallal thinks Howard County is a prime location for his business.
“Columbia is a very good fit for us,” he explained. “Ever since we first opened our first location [in Washington], we had people from Columbia telling us we should open a location there. It’s a diverse community and it speaks to the same values of Busboys & Poets.”
Shallal’s biggest challenge opening in Columbia has been pandemic related.
“It has been challenging,” he said. “We had to cancel so many events because of Omicron — including our New Year’s Eve Party, which had a 150-person waiting list. After Omicron, lots of staff had family, friends or they were infected. We were down 40% .”
Shallal is finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel. He’s excited for the warmer weather and the ability to open his second-floor patio.
“We are moving forward full steam ahead. We’re ready for spring. I’m completely bullish about the spring and the upcoming summer and getting back to some kind of normal,” he said. “If something happens, we’ll readjust. That’s how you operate a business.”
Even though Shallal does not identify as Black, he says he understands the plight of Black people through his activism work and his social circle.
“I identify much more with Black culture,” he said. “People who are marginalized band together.”
The 100-feet-long mural in the restaurant reflects that. Shallal, who painted it in a week, said almost all of the historic figures included reflects guests of the restaurant chain and friends.
The topic of race is a complicated one — especially in the time of this country’s racial reckoning. Describing the type of food served at his restaurant is a prime example. “Everyone eats catfish and gumbo. I see it as American food,” he said. “I’m not trying to diminish or take away the immense contribution of Black cuisine or culture.”
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Highlights from the menu reflect a heavy leaning toward traditional Black cuisine with nods to Shallal’s native Iraq.
“Restaurants in this country are very instrumental in creating a sense of encouraging desegregation. That’s why restaurants are very important. We create spaces where people sit together and spark up conversation,” he said. “We create intentional spaces for interaction.”
Busboys & Poets
6251 Mango Tree Road, Columbia.