A journey for some, a destination for others

For some it’s a starting point — a stepping stone, a part of a plan. For others, it’s a career.

Many in today’s workforce can recall some point in their professional careers when they are waiting tables, tending bar or washing dishes for a living. Whether it’s to pay for schooling, gain experience or earn some extra cash for the summer, working in a restaurant has served as the jumping-off point for many professionals, and has become a career choice for many more.

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Bartending, interning and attending school simultaneously, Sean Burgess is one such young professional working hard to achieve his career aspirations. Originally from Connecticut, he is a full-time undergraduate in his senior year, majoring in social work at the Catholic University of America — but unlike many of his peers, he also interns 20 hours a week at the nonprofit Pathways to Housing and works full time at Chef Geoff’s Downtown bar and restaurant.

Recently accepted to Catholic University’s Master of Social Work program, Burgess wants to pursue a career in clinical social work in Washington, D.C.

“The field is changing — the social work license is getting more respect and D.C. is one of the biggest cities in need, with a huge social work market,” he said.

Spending the vast majority of his time working towards his professional goals has its drawbacks, however.

“It’s hard to keep track of it all sometimes, and you really have to want it,” he said. “Some days I have to wear three different hats.”

Balancing his work life and social life is also difficult, Burgess says. “I wish that I had had the time to be more involved in school itself — I didn’t get to develop the relationships that some people do,” he added.

Ziad Alazem began his professional life in the restaurant business as well, but has continued on to make a career of it. Originally from New York and now the general manager at Local 16, a long-standing restaurant in the U Street neighborhood of Washington, D.C., he started in the business at age 18 to pay for college. Not initially interested in the restaurant business, Alazem spent his years in school trying to figure out what he wanted to do, but “as it turned out, I was doing it all along — it was a surprise,” he said.

“Though my job is demanding and the hours are exhausting sometimes, I’m a lifer, he said. “I like the business and I get to be a part of a lot of special moments in people’s lives.”

Working as the general manager at Chi-Cha Lounge for four years prior to landing his gig at Local 16, Alazem has been in the U Street corridor for over six years. Part of what keeps him in love with the restaurant business is the U Street neighborhood itself.

“U Street is really unlike anything else — it’s a melting pot of a lot of different sub-cultures of D.C.,” he said. “You’re in the middle of basically everything.”

But the area wasn’t what it is today 10 years ago, he noted — the bars and clubs “brought the day life,” he said.

The area’s diverse community development was what drew restaurateur Anas “Andy” Shallal to the area. Originally from Baghdad, Shallal is the founder and owner of the restaurant and self-identified “community gathering place” Busboys and Poets. Though interested in medical studies and originally pursuing a career in that field, he said he realized that line of work did not fulfill his fascination with race and his desire to focus on social issues.

Introduced to the restaurant business by his father, a restaurant owner, Shallal began a number of successful establishments and went on to use his restaurant skills to tie together his passions for art and social activism, creating Busboys and Poets.

Now a staple in the D.C. area, the establishment serves as a community resource for artists, activists, writers, thinkers and dreamers, and has expanded to four locations in the region. He wanted to found the first restaurant on U Street, however, because of its colorful and diverse history.

“It was the epicenter of the civil rights movement,” he said.

Though now successful and pursuing his passion, it hasn’t always been this way, he said.

“I had a very circuitous route to get here,” said Shallal, but like most careers, “the failures along the way are always very useful and help to build the résumé.”