Busboys and Poets’ first Maryland location opened in Baltimore City’s Charles Village on May 27. (Courtesy photo/Google Maps)

By Daryl Moore
Special to the AFRO

At the time of this writing, 57% of Marylanders have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccination. Overall, 47% of the state’s population have been fully vaccinated, according to Our World In Data.

Effective May 15, Governor Larry Hogan announced the end of the statewide mask mandate, aligning Maryland with CDC guidance. Hopefully, all of this means that things will soon return back to “normal.” If not exactly as it was pre-pandemic, at least into a familiar revamped routine. But what does that look like for Baltimore businesses?

One Baltimore business dealing with this post-pandemic return to normalcy is the popular restaurant, Busboys and Poets. The restaurant just opened its newest location in Charles Village on May 27, marking the company’s second location in the state and its eighth location overall. Another location is scheduled to open in Columbia, Md. in August 2021. 

Established in 2005, Busboys and Poets bills itself as a cultural hub for artists, activists, writers, thinkers and dreamers. To that end, Founder and Owner Andy Shallal said he designed the restaurants to be welcoming, bright and airy. These attributes put Busboys and Poets in a unique position of balancing a setting that fosters interaction with an atmosphere that also promotes safety. 

In addressing this, Shallal said, “We are not doing anything much different than before other than making sure that we are not overly crowded and that we offer alternatives to those who don’t feel comfortable going out into crowded places.” 

To be sure, the conversation around whether or not to get the COVID-19 vaccination shot is such a sensitive topic that Governor Hogan, the Maryland Lottery and the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) is offering a $2 Million VaxCash Promotion, which will award $2 million in cash prizes to a total of 41 Maryland residents who have been vaccinated.  Also, some employers are offering incentives to entice its employees to take the vaccine. For example, State of Maryland will offer a $100 financial incentive to state employees who elect to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

However, Busboys and Poets is leaving those decisions to its customers and employees. “We are not offering anything to coerce folks into vaccinating,” Shallal said. “People need to do their own research and find their comfort in how to proceed.” 

Having said that, Busboys and Poets – Baltimore, will host its first community open mic event on Saturday, June 19th, 2021 @ 7 PM in the venue’s private events room, The Elijah Cummings Room.  Shallal describes his restaurants as an “intersection for people.” Shallal said, “Our first priority is to create an environment where connections happen racially and culturally. We don’t want people to feel hurried, so we provide comfortable seating and waiters trained not to rush.”  

Another way Busboys and Poets is embracing a return to post-pandemic life is by holding “salons,” which are conversations that are staged in front of an audience. Shallal describes these salons as, “basically finding someone who is on the cutting edge of a subject, like a writer, artist, etc., and having a conversation with them that enriches and stretches an engaging topic in all different directions until something great develops.” Shallal said everyone interprets topics differently and these salons provide an opportunity for creative thinking to take shape.

On that note, a telling aspect of these salons right now is that while Busboys and Poets will be staging them in front of live crowds, Shallal is still planning to simultaneously broadcast them virtually.

But whether pre-pandemic or post-pandemic, Shallal says the mission of Busboys and Poets remains the same. “We deal with issues of racial justice and equality – which are universal; these things are perennial.” 

Shallal routinely interviews prominent figures for Busboys and Poets and at the end of each of his interviews, he always asks his guests to name four guests from any time period with whom they would like to have dinner. When the question is put to Shallal himself, he answers: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin and Howard Zim. 

Which begs the question: How would these four icons, or any other famous figures, navigate this post-pandemic world?

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