Washington, D.C., restaurateur Kazi Mannan has had quite a week. The owner of Sakina Grill, a Pakistani quick-service café just a few blocks from the White House, has been overwhelmed by the attention he’s received for something he’s always done: provide a meal to anyone who’s hungry.
"It got so much attention from all over the world,” Mannan told local ABC reporter Caroline Patrickis on Monday. “I'm overwhelmed and really excited that this message is going viral. What do we do next?"
Mannan and his generous philosophy have been profiled before, but it was an ABC7 interview published on Feb. 8 that brought his story to a global audience.
"If someone says I need a free meal, OK," Mannan said. He doesn't ask questions and never judges anybody. His policy has remained the same for the last five years. If you're hungry, poor or homeless, you eat for free. In 2018, he estimates they served over 16,000 free meals.
"If you can't afford a meal, come in and have a free meal. Enjoy the same atmosphere that everybody who is paying is enjoying," Mannan said.
Mannan has been feeding the hungry without question ever since he opened his restaurant in 2013. The origins of his generosity are a reflection of his own experiences with poverty, both in Pakistan and here in the United States, a desire to pay tribute to his mother, and a desire to honor his creator.
Mannan first noticed people eating garbage while driving a limousine, and says he was determined to feed those in need if ever he owned his own restaurant. When his dream came true, he named the restaurant for his mother, Sakina, who taught him the fundamental lesson of caring for others.
He was one of 11 siblings raised in Kuri, a small village in Pakistan. Growing up, he didn’t have electricity, running water or even a building for school. Classes were held underneath a tree, and if it rained, they were cancelled. But for Kazi, extreme poverty was the norm, and he recalled feeling blessed.
When cooking dinner, Kazi’s mother, Sakina, would send her children to deliver some food to their neighbors, even though their supply was extremely limited.
“That was her way of worshipping God,” said Kazi.
Though Mannan’s approach is just now finding an international spotlight, this interview with D.C. Eater explains how serving the homeless and hungry has always been a part of his business model. “I like to believe that when I’m giving to the poor and hungry, God sees that. Just the act of giving a smile to someone can be a blessing. Just think about what food has the power to do,” Mannan told Eater’s Tim Ebner back in Feb. 2017.
This restaurant is an example. The day I took over, I brought in all of the homeless people that I could find, and I said, ‘You eat for free.’
They didn’t believe me. They sat down in the dining room and said, ‘Are you sure you’re not going to charge us?’ They ate and kept asking that same question. They thought that I was tricking them, but I told them, ‘This is your place to eat. As long as I own it, this is your place.’
So now they can dine-in or takeout for free. Today, I have so many homeless friends. I have phone numbers and get texts from them all of the time ... That’s what I want. I want them to see me as their friend. And, I want others to see them as human beings.
Mannan is proud to be an employer of immigrants, including his brother, who is Sakina Grill’s head chef. He did concede to Ebner that his American experience—which began in 1996, when he arrived with almost nothing—is tainted with fear. “As a Muslim-American and small business owner I live in fear of a Trump America. He is a real threat to our democracy. But, my heart is pure. I will continue to believe in the goodness of humanity and remain hopeful in the unity of people. I hope my message reaches all leaders of the world, not just President Trump.”
Watch this amazing interview from Sept. 2018—it’s not the one that went viral, but it will melt your heart … and in times like these, that can’t be a bad thing.