A close call with coronavirus drives a restaurant owner to feed those in need, everywhere.
By Sibte Hassan as told to Abigail Koffler
Sibte Hassan grew up in Lahore, Pakistan. He moved to New York 21 years ago, and in 2015, he opened BK Jani, a halal restaurant known for burgers and kebabs. BK Jani moved from Bushwick to a larger space in Williamsburg in March 2020. Hassan contracted COVID in April, and since his recovery has largely dedicated himself to feeding others through his Daal Chawal Project.
On March 3rd of 2020, we had a soft opening here. We had friends and family come and check out the new spot. Everybody was excited. On the 6th, I started to charge again, to go back to normal commercial operations. And then, on March 20th, we started lockdown. Then 12 days after that, I got COVID.
I have a huge array of customers. I used to have a slew of doctors come by from Wyckoff hospital from the Bushwick days, and they never warned me of it being an epidemic. I mean it was an epidemic, but they didn’t make it sound like it’s gonna be a big issue, they were like, “It’s gonna be crazy, like it’s a new strain of flu, but we’re good.”
But then April 3rd, I got a fever. I had been working the whole time. I was not very careful about wearing the mask because I thought, it’s a flu, not a big deal. But then I got sick. I was home for eight days in high fever. And then on April 11th at 3 a.m., my temperature was 103, 102.8.
I took a Tylenol and it went down to 99 or 100, and then it came back up. I was tired of feeling feverish, so I called 911, and they picked up the phone, saying, “What’s your emergency?” I said, ”It’s not disastrous, but I have a massive fever that is not going away, and I think I need to go to the hospital.” She calmed me down and said, “You can breathe, everything is fine, just take Tylenol and you’re going to be fine.”
So I said okay, alright. And then around 10 a.m. the next day, my oxygen was dropping. It went down to 88, and then my friend said, “No, you need to go to the hospital.” He drove me, they immediately took my x-ray and admitted me, and I was there for 12 days.
It was getting to a point where my heart rate laying down was 110 or 115. People had already started dying. I was like, this is how it begins, the end of the story. There was a point where they said you are going to be on the ventilator if you don’t pick up on your oxygen levels. They kept on changing my medication, and finally a couple of steroids started to work, and I started to improve my oxygen. The only thing that really worked was me laying face down and someone coming and slapping the hell out of my back. That really helped revive my lungs.
Then 12 days later, I came back home after losing 20 pounds in 20 days. I was skin and bones. I stayed at home for another 12 days, and started to walk again.
I was quiet about it then. I’m always going to be quiet about these things. I told two of my friends my passwords, where they were going to be listed. My phone is still unlocked—if I’m dead, they should not be waiting for Apple to unlock it. I was ready to go. Everyone’s gonna die, so might as well go now.
I don’t want to use my personal suffering to promote BK Jani because they are two separate things. It was a personal experience, not a commercial experience. I’m personally not scared of death. The only thing I’m scared of is being helpless, and during my COVID time, I was a little bit helpless. I didn’t like that. My helplessness was physical. I had a respirator on my face, my motor skills were getting really weak, even the call button by my hospital bed—I could not even find it.
I was giving out food before all of this, but I would tell people not to promote us, not to put us on the donor list, don’t mention us, don’t make stories on Instagram. It should be honorable—it should not be publicized. You spend $1 on a donation and $10 to promote the donation. You could have donated those $10 to more people and made more of a difference.
I grew up in Lahore, Pakistan. That part of the world is a hub of Sufi saints, and when you go to the shrine to pay homage, you will find a kitchen. They will be serving something over there, for the pilgrims, for the people coming, because they must be hungry. They have a system called langar—the tradition of offering free food at temples and shrines. It looks very simple, but when you start eating it, first of all it’s delicious. And it has a lot of protein and starch. It fills you up, and you will chill out.
I grew up watching and experiencing the tradition that you go to a shrine, and you get free food for life. So I’m continuing that over here. It’s vegan, it’s vegetarian, and people who like to eat meat will not miss meat much. Anyone can eat it. Sharing is first and foremost.
As a Muslim, as a Punjabi, as a Pakistani, even if you are super poor, even if you have nothing, if you get a piece of bread, the first thing you would do, as part of our culture—which is quite opposite to a New Yorker—is you will break it in half and give it to somebody. You immediately share the first thing you get. Over here, no, it’s the opposite. You fill up your fridge first, and then you give away what you don’t want.
That still bothers me. Sometimes I think people who are super privileged and rich will always act like this is a crisis for them. It’s not a crisis for you, bro. You have a 401k and an IRA going on. You have investments, what are you scared of?
There are people I know, they don’t have any money, they have three kids and they don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow. They’re scared. If you are living in New York, you’re either documented or not documented. Even if you are documented, it doesn’t matter, you’re not going to get a job right away, and you have the rent to pay and you have three kids. All these people who are acting like there’s a crisis, it’s a faint crisis for you. Why can’t you just take care of a family, and give them a couple of thousand dollars, if you’ve got millions in your pocket, and help somebody out?
Before I went to the hospital, I was in touch with Meals4heroes. It’s a nonprofit started by Anna Azvolinsky. Anna and her husband started to raise money from friends and family, and would send money to the restaurant to get the meals made and delivered.
While I was in the hospital, I didn’t want everybody at the restaurant to get sick, so I sent them home for a week. I came back and started working with Anna, and then we did like 4,000 meals for the hospitals in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. My nurses were super nice. The nurse manager, Elaine, was so nice and so happy. She would walk in every morning, asking what are we doing today, and are we going dancing tonight. She actually got me to walk around the floor one day. I realized I needed to celebrate them, so that’s why, with Meals4heroes, I know I’m doing something for people who took care of me. Since then, they gradually ran out of funding. I found a couple of more places to partner up with, like Muslims Against Hunger and North Brooklyn Mutual Aid.
Now every Thursday, I cook 300 lentils and rice meals, and they deliver them to underprivileged people. I do it out-of-pocket. Once my friends heard about it, and they started to send me Venmos for $50, $100, or $500. And once I posted it on BK Jani’s Instagram, in two days, I got $2,650. I can buy ingredients, and I can continue the good stuff. We have crossed 4,500 meals in the Daal Chawal Project.
In six months, I’m going to make it bigger. I’m going to put a donate button, and there will be recurring donations from friends and family, and I can keep doing that indefinitely. I’m blessed that I have friends who, if I need something, they’re there. I have seen it firsthand that people literally don’t know where the second meal is, or what’s going to happen tomorrow.
The bigger picture is that food scarcity is not just local, it’s not just hyperlocal, it’s all over. Lentils and rice is a very low-cost, high-yield way that we can easily feed a vegan, vegetarian, or meat eater with the same formula. My goal is to find partners in different cities, and I can send them a starter kit with the formula, the recipe, the idea and the timing and an electric cooker or whatever they need to get started. A four-pound bag of rice and four pounds of lentils can feed 40 people easily. And that could be made up in an hour or so.
I make 300 meals in that oven in 2 hours 20 minutes. I have it down to a science, all my recipes. I can give you alternatives. I can give you an Instant Pot recipe. I can buy you two Instant Pots if you don’t have any money. I’ll give you money out-of-pocket. And if I don’t have money out-of-pocket, I’ll call up a friend and say, “I need $400 to buy two Instant Pots to ship over to this person,” and they will get started. If you can just follow the recipes and have two Instant Pots running, you can feed 100 people in two hours a week. It doesn’t have to be a gigantic commercial kitchen. You can do it at home.
So this is going to continue indefinitely. I hope it grows bigger than my restaurant. If given an option, I want to dedicate myself to the Daal Chawal Project. This restaurant is a luxury—you can choose to come here. The Daal Chawal Project will help people sustain their lives, and that has more social value than owning a restaurant. I think that’s more noble at this point.
I’m not fully recovered. I have chronic fatigue—I can literally close my eyes and be off to sleep pretty soon, but I cannot sleep for long. I have very short sleep cycles. Initially, I had short-term memory loss. I would walk into the restaurant completely forgetting why I’m here. Now I have the stamina to walk. When I came out of the house at first, I could not walk ten steps easily. I would get out of breath. According to my lung specialist, most people have single-side pneumonia. I had bilateral pneumonia, so both lungs were swollen to the point where they would say, “Take a deep breath,” and my breath would be shallow and quick. That’s all I had. That was my deep breath.
I have a lot of plusses, a couple of negatives, but who cares. I can see straight. People have messed-up eyesight, messed-up hearing, heart issues. I only have chronic fatigue. That’s why I drink coffee. One of my guys who used to work at our other location, his brother passed away from COVID, and now his mother just passed away from COVID as well. And I have other people who have lost somebody. I’m alive, so let’s do something.