As Busboys and Poets founder Andy Shallal MBA ’19 fixed a shattered window from a break-in at his restaurant chain’s Anacostia location, he stared at the black sheet of plywood that now covered the space, then picked up his paintbrushes. 

The result: “Busboys [heart] Anacostia”—a painting that channeled his misfortune into inspiration.

Andy Shallal MBA ’19 headshot“Storefronts are such a representation of the spaces that you’re about to enter,” Shallal said. “Once we painted the plywood black I saw it as a canvas and an opportunity to turn what might be seen as a scar into something beautiful.” 

What came next surprised him. The painting spurred a flood of support from the surrounding community and a realization for Shallal that he could spread positivity throughout the Washington, D.C., region, and maybe even beyond. So he painted the windows of his 14th Street D.C. location with the message, “In Dark Times, Shine Your Light Brighter.”

“I got the idea that people are looking for something positive to come out in these very difficult times,” Shallal said. “So instead of people walking around having their heads down and feeling isolated from one another, why not spread some positive messages and help people feel connected with their humanity?”

Shallal then reached out to celebrity chef and humanitarian José Andrés, who eagerly accepted his offer, inviting Shallal to paint five of his restaurants across the city.

Now, Shallal is turning his impromptu passion project into a movement. Paying out of his own pocket, he has enlisted the help of local artists who may have lost employment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone can join in the effort, he said, sharing their work using the hashtag #PaintTheStorefronts.     

“For these artists, this became an opportunity to safely get out of the house, earn some cash, do what they love and spread positivity all at the same time,” said Shallal. “We unleashed them across the city and now we have over 80 windows completed.”

The owner of seven Busboys and Poets throughout the D.C. area, including one near UMD in Hyattsville, Shallal is looking beyond the paintbrush for more ways to serve.

Recently, he and Andres were named to the ReOpen DC Advisory Group, where they will collaborate with city officials, artists, architects and nonprofit leaders to help the District and its businesses regain their footing after the coronavirus disruptions. They’re working to create recommendations for a safe return to business operations.

Whether that’s weeks or months down the road, the city and its businesses will have to consider the parameters, Shallal said. Restaurants, in particular, he says, present unique challenges because it is harder to meet social distancing requirements in smaller areas like the kitchen.

“There are going to be situations where we don’t want to be second-guessing ourselves,” Shallal said. “We must create our guidelines based on the best practices and learning what we can from other places around the world that have already begun this process.”