For a year and a half, Americans endured a political campaign driven by xenophobia, sexism, and the erasure of the cultural, ethnic, and personal diversity upon which this country was built.Back then, it was "just talk." Now, with President Trump having signed more than 22 executive actions in just over two weeks, it's policy.Since Trump's election, the political tenor of the DMV area (DC, Maryland, Virginia) has seen a palpable shift as red-state supporters and lobbyists increasingly inject themselves into largely blue territory. In the belly of this beast lies Busboys and Poets, a restaurant ready and willing to productively channel the chaos and offer up more than just a place to come eat your feelings.
"I wanted a place where people could exchange ideas, have a conversation, and have a great meal—a place to meet people and intersect with different parts of the community that they don't normally intersect with," says Busboys' owner Andy Shallal, an Iraqi immigrant who opened his popular DC eatery in 2005 and now boasts six locations. "I've always viewed restaurants here in DC as very segregated—segregated politically and segregated socially. I viewed [Busboys] as an experiment, to see if it could bring all these people together."
Shallal says he was moved to highlight unity—in an industry scene that rarely displays it—by offering a space with live events that were artistic in nature along with a menu that juxtaposed visuals and quotes from Black poets like Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes with eclectic food offerings. In addition to typical American fare (burgers, pizza, paninis), Busboys also offers a plethora of thoughtful vegan dishes like coconut tofu bites with plum red-pepper sauce, and a vegan "tuna" salad sandwich made with chickpeas, relish, nori, carrot, celery and vegan mayo.Busboys' mission goes well beyond the walls of its restaurants. This January marked the third iteration of the Peace Ball, an alternative inaugural celebration that Busboys has held since the days of President George W. Bush. The ball totes the tagline "Voices of Hope and Resistance" and this year it delivered nothing short of that, with distinguished guests like poet Sonia Sanchez, authors Alice Walker, Zainab Salbi, and Naomi Klein, personalities like Melissa Harris-Perry, Tim Wise, and the legendary Angela Davis, as well as performances by Esperanza Spalding and Solange Knowles.
During the evening's festivities, voices rang loudly for resistance against the incoming Trump administration. Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, remarked, "I refuse to go backwards. We stand on the shoulders of giants, people who gave their lives to make sure that we could be in a space like this together. People who gave their lives to make sure that we could live in dignity. That means, for me, I am not ready to go backwards."Garza added, "This is the moment we challenge ourselves to do things differently, to get to know people we didn't know very well before. This is a moment to test our values."Along with organizing star-studded events like the Peace Ball, Busboys relishes in intersectionality on a smaller scale, within its restaurants. It offers an impressively curated collection of books for sale in collaboration with independent bookstore, Politics and Prose, as well as regular spoken word events and book readings. The goal: encouraging thought while maintaining high-quality and accessible cuisine. Entrees rarely go above $20, with most menu offerings below $15.
"We can't be everything for everybody, obviously," says Shallal. "But it is possible for two people to share a meal here and spend $10 to $15 dollars, if they order correctly."Even at those prices—and on top of the food costs of locally sourced ingredients—Busboys is able to ensure fair wages, healthcare benefits, and a safe work environment for its employees.
In light of Trump's nomination of fast food executive Andy Puzder for labor secretary, these aren't just small concessions. Puzder, who has opposed minimum wage increases and has advocated replacing human labor with machines, exemplifies the kind of exploitative food industry practices that Shallal refuses to mimic at Busboys.Trump's actions also strike a personal chord for Shallal. He left Iraq—one of the seven Muslim-majority countries included on Trump's recent travel ban—in the 1960s to make America his home. "Immigrants are the insurance policy of this country. They appreciate the values that make this country a place they want to call home," Shallal says. "They care about these things and do not take them for granted. We cannot be guided by fear and a false patriotic wreath, but rather by the power of kindness and generosity that has been the hallmark of this nation."
In many ways, Busboys and Poets acts as a tangible expression of social change. Shallal has worked hard at making his restaurants hubs of inclusion under two very different administrations—though the third may prove to be the most challenging.At January's Peace Ball, Angela Davis took the stage and proclaimed, "An inauguration is happening tomorrow—so they say. But this is a people's' inauguration. This is an inauguration of the resistance to come. The resistance to those who proliferate Islamophobia and racism, the resistance to the billionaires, and those who are mortgage profiteers and healthcare privateers—resistance to this last gasp of a dying white, male supremacy."With resistance, there must be joy—a joy that motivates, nourishes, and fuels us to go on. Food, the great unifier, is that joy we all need.