Sakina Halal Grill owner Kazi Mannan has a lot to be thankful for as Thanksgiving approaches this year. Just last week, the South Asian restaurant in downtown D.C. was on the ropes, and Mannan was prepared to lock up for good. In a last ditch effort, Mannan launched a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe on Thursday, November 12. Over its first six days, the fund raised more than $237,000 toward a $250,000 goal.
“I was so overwhelmed by the love and support,” Mannan says. “A few days ago, I had tears [because I was afraid] of losing everything, and today, I have tears of happiness, hope, and joy.”
Mannan’s generosity as a restaurant owner surely factored into the response. Since he bought the restaurant in 2015, Mannan has maintained an open-door policy for people experiencing homelessness to sit down for a free meal from Sakina’s Pakistani, Nepalese, and Indian menu. He estimates he served more than 20,000 free meals in five years.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, his business could afford to be charitable. But considering a lack of government-funded support and the precipitous drop of foot traffic downtown, Mannan was certain he would have to close by December. The normal 9-to-5 lunch rush that propped up Sakina had disappeared. He had to stop serving free meals while food insecurity is rising.
“COVID-19 has absolutely devastated my business, and so many other restaurants, too,” Mannan says. “We lost many of our regular customers. We couldn’t afford to feed the homeless. And for a while [in the spring], we had to shut down completely.”
For the last five months, his restaurant operated under limited takeout and socially-distanced dining, but Mannan says it wasn’t enough. He was bringing in approximately $500 in sales per day, not nearly enough to cover a lease and operational costs that total $45,000 per month.
“I started borrowing money from the bank, from friends... I really didn’t know what else I would do to survive,” he says. “We had to do something, and that’s when my friend suggested a crowdfunded campaign.”
GoFundMe featured the campaign on it main page. As of noon Wednesday, November 18, more than 5,100 donors had raised $237,647. The campaign is on track to hit its $250,000 goal before Thanksgiving. Many small-dollar contributions come with messages of gratitude and support.
“Thank you for all that you do for the community! I hope this helps. Sending my prayers your way,” one donor writes.
“During these struggling times, may you be able to take care of yourselves too. I look forward to getting a meal from you guys,” another says.
The funds collected will be used to pay down debts and operational costs to keep Sakina Grill open. Mannan says he will be able to start serving meals to homeless people again in December.
“Now, we are here starting with a new hope and journey to support others,” Mannan says. “I’m being called to do something bigger than myself.”
He says he’s also in the process of filing paperwork to launch a charity, called the Food & Faith Foundation, with a mission to help feed the poor. He expects the foundation will be up and running by early next year.
“Whatever funds I have leftover from this GoFundMe will be donated to the foundation,” Mannan says, “because wherever people are in trouble and whenever they need food, I want to be there to support them.”