When Kazi Mannan threw a grand opening party for Sakina Halal Grill, his Pakistani-Indian restaurant in Washington, D.C., his friends were surprised that they weren’t included on the guest list. Did he ditch them for a bunch of high-ranking politicos?
No. The VIPs were all homeless. After serving his homeless guests dinner, Mannan invited them to return to the restaurant for a free meal anytime they liked. “At first, they thought I was tricking them. They thought I was going to charge them. I said, No, it’s not a trick. This place is a symbol of love,” says Mannan.
Our job is not to judge who deserves and who doesn’.
Three years later, the restaurant continues to serve anybody who needs a meal, homeless or not. In 2016, Mannan gave away more than 6,000 meals, and he intends to triple that number in 2017.
He instructs his staff to not concern themselves with who can and who cannot afford to pay. “Our job is not to judge who deserves and who doesn’t,” he says. “We just leave it to God. If someone says they don’t have money, just give them a meal, that’s it. Simple story.”
In 2014, immigrant-owned businesses in the United States employed 5.9 million people and generated $65.5 billion in income. As a Pakistani immigrant, Mannan is part of a group that starts new businesses at double the rate of the general U.S. population, according to research by New American Economy. In 2014, 19.1 percent of immigrants from the Middle East and Northern Africa were entrepreneurs, compared with 11.6 percent of immigrants overall and 9.1 percent of U.S.-born Americans.
Mannan’s business practices aren’t just inspirational, they’re also profitable. Since the restaurant opened, Mannan says he has had no problem covering his expenses and paying his 13 employees while earning a profit. He explains that creating an atmosphere of generosity and kindness is good for business.
“Let’s say a bill comes to $13.50, but the person only has $13. So you say, ‘That’s okay. Don’t worry about it.’ Then the next time the person gives you a dollar,” he says.
For Mannan, providing enough food for everybody is part of his heritage. He grew up in extreme poverty in Pakistan, but when his mother cooked pots of stew, using vegetables and herbs she’d foraged from a nearby field, she insisted on feeding people throughout the village.
“When I was young, I didn’t understand. Why are you making a big pot and giving it to other people? But this is the culture. Even very poor people share,” he says.
In 1996, Mannan arrived in the United States with three dollars in his pocket. He worked multiple jobs and round-the-clock shifts as a gas station cashier, a medical center assistant, an airport shuttle driver, and a limousine driver.
“While driving the limousine, I used to see homeless people looking for food through trash cans. So I decided: One day I will have a restaurant, and I will announce on national TV that nobody in this city will be sleeping hungry,” he says.
His 16- and 17-hour days paid off. By 1999, he owned his own limousine company, and by 2014 he had saved enough to purchase the Mayur Kabab House, which he recently renamed Sakina Halal Grill, after his mother.
Now a U.S. citizen, Mannan’s journey certainly wasn’t easy. But he says the immigration process has become much more difficult, something he observes through his younger acquaintances. Because the process is so slow, something as mundane as an address change can throw an application into chaos. “A small thing happens and the visa drags on. They are looking for a small clue to reject it. So you get a deportation order. This happens to a lot of people,” he says.
Fear and uncertainty, he adds, make it difficult for even the most dedicated and skillful immigrants to flourish. “If this is going to be a place where people are scared and are not free to do business, it will hurt this country,” he says.
A more streamlined immigration process would enable immigrants to direct their energy into more productive pursuits. It would also more accurately reflect the spirit of openness that Mannan sees in the American people. At a recent benefit event for refugees at the restaurant, Mannan was inspired by the generosity his customers showed. “American people came out with clothes, shoes, food, and money,” he says. “Oh my God, my heart was so happy.”