October 1, 2020

Busboys, Poets and Pivoting During COVID

Andy Shallal, EMBA ’19, has seen first-hand how COVID-19 is impacting the restaurant industry across the greater D.C. region and beyond. Despite the challenges, Shallal believes it’s not time for restaurant and business owners to throw in the towel just yet.

The Busboys and Poets founder shared his experiences and offered insights to help others weather the pandemic during the recent “Maryland Business: Rebooted” webinar, moderated by Maryland Smith’s Victor Mullins and Judy Frels. This session, appropriately, was titled “Pivoting is the New Normal.”

“It’s a high-touch business where there are so many things that can go wrong,” Shallal said. “Restaurants are a fragile ecosystem where so many different functions come together under one roof. People are the most exciting and the most challenging aspect of this business, and regardless of whether it’s an employee or customer, it’s our job to take care of them.”

For business owners, Shallal discussed the importance of maintaining a sense of community during the pandemic. At Busboys and Poets, that meant updating his restaurants’ technological capabilities to meet carry-out demand and work with delivery services.

But Busboys and Poets is known for its events, too. In the pandemic, Shallal moved those in-restaurant conversations with thought leaders to online platforms, keeping the community engaged.

“When you’re in the business of being a staple of the community. You need to be there when it needs you,” said Shallal. “When the pandemic happened, it wasn’t like we were prepared – no one is truly prepared for a pandemic. But we made sure we were able to keep our lights on and help the community how we could.”

Shallal said his upbringing as an Iraqi-American, born in Baghdad, helped shape how he created his restaurant space.

“The concept has been brewing in my mind for decades. I always wanted to create a gathering place where people could talk about community and larger issues,” said Shallal. “Restaurants are a great venue for that, not just because of the food aspect, but because of those dinner table conversations.”

His time in the Executive MBA program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business has played a role in shaping the business as well. The program, Shallal said, enhanced his appreciation for the analytical side of his business.

“I look at numbers much more closely now and we have different measurements and key indicators to make sure we’re on the right track,” Shallal said. “We look at data more than ever now to help us make more informed decisions. So the learning I did was invaluable.”

Regardless of the challenges imposed by COVID-19, Shallal encouraged audience members to stay level-headed and to conquer small challenges to stay motivated. Panicking is counterproductive, he said, and can prevent you from taking advantage of moments like these to reinvent yourself or your business.

For either financial support or consulting, Shallal recommended the Small Business Administration as a resource that businesses can lean on to get through this period.

“Whatever happens, no matter how terrible, there’s always a way out and a solution. You’re going to learn from your experiences and you’re going to be stronger because of it,” said Shallal.

“Use this moment to take a closer look at how you can elevate your business’ capabilities and view this as an opportunity to get better.”

Watch the video:Maryland Business: Rebooted - Pivoting is the New Normal.”

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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