The streets around Kazi Mannan’s downtown Washington restaurant were deserted after D.C.’s workforce began to hunker down at home. On the days he was open, no one came in.
So Mannan shuttered his Pakistani-Indian restaurant, which is surrounded by office buildings and sits blocks from the city’s suddenly dormant convention center, for a few months. He waited to see whether the area would spring back to life.
When he reopened in July, only a few customers trickled in. He said he was making just $500 to $600 a day in sales, compared with about $80,000-$90,000 a month in sales before the restrictions. It wasn’t enough to keep him afloat.
“I’m a very positive person, and always when I get up I say, ‘Things will change,’ ” Mannan said this week. “But I’m losing so much money I can’t really afford. … I don’t know what to do.”
The math, he said, was simple: Make a profit or close Sakina Halal Grill for good.
He decided to turn to the community for help — a role reversal, after helping others for years. Mannan’s K Street restaurant has been serving free food to those experiencing homelessness or otherwise struggling since it opened.
It was his mother, the restaurant’s namesake, who instilled in him a love of giving back.
“She was very big-time into giving back into the community,” he said. “It was so much of her love that came into me.”
Before the pandemic, he used to serve as many as 80 free meals a day. After the coronavirus began raging and D.C.’s downtown workforce traded Metro commutes and sit-down lunch meetings for home-cooked meals and delivery, Mannan lost many of his regular customers and could no longer afford to feed those in need.
“Whatever resources I have, I just kind of spent it to try it out,” he said.
That didn’t work.
At first, he was hesitant to ask for donations. But even if some customers returned, friends warned him, it wouldn’t be enough. A friend suggested setting up a GoFundMe page.
Mannan was also featured in a pair of stories by Caroline Patrickis, a reporter for ABC affiliate WJLA.
Donations started to stream in.
Mannan said he couldn’t sleep, overwhelmed as he read the comments of support.
An electrician saw his client’s house was in disrepair. So he called friends and they fixed her house for free.
His struggles caught the eye of human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar, who said Mannan “deserves good karma.”
Iftikhar said after seeing reports of Mannan’s story, “I just sat there and I literally thought to myself, dude, there is no justice in this world if a restaurant that feeds the homeless goes down on our watch. I’m not going to let that happen.”
He started with some social media mobilization — his Twitter account, @TheMuslimGuy, has nearly 60,000 followers — and said he reached out to people he thought would amplify Mannan’s story.
British Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed retweeted Iftikhar’s post.
Then, it began pouring.
Within days, more than $250,000 had been sent to the GoFundMe.
“I am overwhelmed,” Mannan said. “People are angels, they understood my pain and came in and rescued me.”
Mannan said the donations will help pay for his expenses, which are about $45,000 a month, and will help him rehire some of his staff. He said more people are now coming to order food from the restaurant, too.
“My dream is to go back to the same old ways,” he said. “To go back and anybody who can’t afford a meal, come in. … Now it looks like that dream is coming into reality.”
Another dream, he said, is to use any leftover funds toward a foundation that can support other restaurants in feeding the homeless or hungry.
Hassan Abbas, a professor of international relations at the National Defense University in Washington, said he met Mannan at a South Asian community event years ago.
Their families became friends, and Abbas would regularly go to Mannan’s restaurant with family or with colleagues.
Abbas recalled suggesting that a visiting interfaith delegation from New York go to Sakina Halal Grill for dinner in December 2018. They sat down to “pool our ideas to help build bridges of peace,” Abbas said, and asked Mannan to sit down with them.
“We are meeting at a place that is bridge building between communities,” he said. “In the era we’re going through, this is extremely needed. Think about the last two years, what the U.S. has gone through, all the division, with red states, blue states, about migrants and immigrants, about race.”
Abbas said he witnessed the restaurant serving people who may have been struggling and said they received “all the respect a paying customer would be given.”
The city has 6,380 people who are homeless as of 2020, according to an annual survey by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments released in June.
Annual homeless count shows slight drop, fewest unhoused since 2001
Iftikhar said another reason he wanted to boost the story of a Pakistan-born immigrant and his halal cuisine was because “there are not many positive stories about Muslims.”
“His story also shows we’re all going through this pandemic together,” he said. “The pandemic doesn’t discriminate against any of us.”
Before opening his restaurant in 2013, Mannan recalled driving around D.C. and seeing those experiencing homelessness and thinking, “Oh, God, if I ever had a restaurant, what I’m going to do first thing, I’ll announce, let them come in and have dignity and respect and eat.”
The first day he opened, he said he brought in dozens who were gathered in nearby Franklin Square, previously an unofficial refuge for the homeless, to offer them a meal.
“I was sharing my love, kindness and joy with others, and now the same thing I’m receiving,” he said. “I’m on the other side, and I’m receiving the same love, kindness and joy.”