Profile of a Successful Green Entrepreneur: Andy Shallal, Busboys & Poets

Profile of a Successful Green Entrepreneur: Andy Shallal, Busboys & Poets 

Anas “Andy” Shallal is an Iraqi-American artist, activist and restaurateur, who is perhaps best known for owning and operating Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C.  Busboys and Poets is a popular green restaurant: it has plenty of vegan alternatives and organic beer and wines on its menu, and uses recyclable products and wind energy in its operations.  But the venue is so much more than a restaurant.  It houses a fair trade market and bookstore and a space for music shows and poetry slams, and frequently displays local artists’ works.

As Mr. Shallal puts it: “Busboys and Poets is a labor of love.  It’s a culmination of all my passions under one roof… a restaurant/bookstore/performance space with a progressive political agenda.”

Since the first location opened in the U Street corridor in 2005, Busboys and Poets has generated considerable support within the community, thanks to its focus on issues of social justice and peace.  Busboys and Poets has also opened two other locations in Washington, D.C., and last year grossed over $14 million in revenues.  By staying true to his socially responsible vision for Busboys and Poets, Mr. Shallal has managed to provide several D.C.-area communities with a friendly gathering place where they can enjoy good food and great dialog.

How was your commitment to social justice initially received within the surrounding community? 
People were initially skeptical…[but] once we opened, people realized that we provided more than just a place to buy good food…[we were] also a community space that honors and enhances the surrounding community and its history.

Given some of the initial resistance you encountered, why did you insist on starting a business with such progressive aims?  In retrospect, do you think it would have been easier – or more successful – had you opened a restaurant without the prominent commitment to social justice?

To me a business that is not grounded in social justice and community is a business not worth having.  I cannot imagine doing business just for financial profit.

Why have you chosen restaurants to effectuate social change?
Everyone eats!  A restaurant or coffee shop is a watering hole for the community.  It’s where people connect and share with one another.

What were some of the challenges you faced when starting a green business?
Believe it or not, it’s the availability of products and ease of procurement.  For instance it was nearly impossible to get green cleaning products.  We had to educate our purveyors on what green means.

To what resources did you turn when you were forced to confront these challenges?  How did you overcome them?
Once we made the commitment to go green, we gave our suppliers an ultimatum.  Either come along for the ride, or we’re leaving them behind.  They came along!

When you initially were looking for startup capital for the first Busboys and Poets, you spurned traditional banks, and went through a local, black-owned bank (Industrial Bank) in order to secure funding.  Why did you choose to acquire funding through Industrial Bank?  Were they able to offer better terms, or was it part of your commitment to do business locally?

I wanted a local bank with a history in this community.  Industrial Bank provided such a connection.  The terms were similar to what I would have gotten elsewhere, but it was important to stay local.

Do you think an entrepreneur today would be able to get similar financing?
I doubt it.  Entrepreneurs are facing unprecedented obstacles in obtaining financing.  I know this fact firsthand.  I recently went to get additional financing for expansion and was told that I needed my home for collateral.  I found that absurd having had such a long track record and very good credit.  I can just imagine what a start-up would have to do.

How surprised have you been at the success of Busboys and Poets?  What do you consider to be its critical success factors?

Busboys and Poets’ success lies in the fact that it is a welcoming place that is grounded in community.  It provides a much needed service for a gathering space.  We have managed to create a great deal of alliances with local organizations that use us for their meetings and gatherings.

How did you reach the decision to utilize recyclable products and wind energy for the store?  How have these choices affected your business operations?
It was at the center of our mission.  People immediately know what we are all about the minute they enter our space.  We did not try to be everything for everyone – we definitely have a niche and we adhere to it.

What challenges do you face today?  How are you addressing them?  Have you been able to turn to other green businesses and organizations for help?
My biggest challenge is trying to create coalitions within my industry to create buying cooperatives that will help to address the cost issues for green products.  Unless the costs come down it will be very hard to convince the neighborhood carryout to switch to containers that cost 3 or 4 times more than Styrofoam, for instance.

If you could change one thing about the green business landscape right now, what would it be?
Make it less elitist and more accessible to ordinary citizens.  Right now green is synonymous with costly.  This needs to change.  It should be more cost effective to operate a green business, yet green businesses face higher costs.

What business opportunities do you think exist for aspiring entrepreneurs in the green marketplace?
Better distribution mechanisms for sustainable and local foods would fill the gap for such a need.

Mr. Shallal, you’ve been quoted elsewhere as saying that when you first started Busboys and Poets, you would be surprised if it made money, and that you planned to keep the place running, even if it was barely breaking even. Should other green entrepreneurs have such humble aspirations for their startups?  Do they need to temper their return expectations if they have similarly strong social responsibility commitments?

I think you should dream big and act small.  Very successful entrepreneurs rarely start an enterprise to make money.  Yet most of them do.  I tell any aspiring entrepreneur that if their motivation is primarily money centered, they will either fail or be rich and miserable.