Shabbir and Ruqayya Bala are immigrants and Muslims, longtime restaurateurs and business owners, proud Americans and parents whose son graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in the Iraq war.
Their long journey began in Pakistan. It led them to California, Lake Stevens and finally to Marysville, where this week they closed their restaurant, Boondockers Cafe.
Wednesday was their last day in business before retirement. Shabbir Bala, who had a heart transplant last year, is 66. His wife is 59. Customers, there for a final meal or just to say goodbye, offered them hugs and high praise. The Balas had become their friends.
“These are good, good people,” said David Black, 71, who had finished his super omelet. A Boondockers customer for years, Black said he always orders that omelet, which has “a little bit of everything.”
There were others in the cafe from Lake Stevens, where the Balas ran the original Boondockers in the Frontier Village area from 1994 to 2006. They inherited the cafe’s name. Boondockers had been a Lake Stevens burger stop dating back to 1970.
After the 2006 move to 1008 Cedar Ave. in Marysville, they expanded the menu, adding curries, kebabs and other spicy dishes inspired by their homeland.
Shabbir Bala shared his story on the restaurant’s Facebook page in an Aug. 24 post announcing retirement. “I started in the restaurant business in the ’60s, working in my dad’s restaurant in Pakistan,” he wrote.
His father ran a restaurant in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. In Pakistan, he attended a British boarding school and a Catholic school before coming to the United States in 1970. At California Polytechnic State University, or Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo, he earned a degree in industrial engineering — yet years of restaurant work took the place of an engineering career.
It took him eight years to become a citizen. To get through college, he’d had as many as three jobs at a time. To obtain U.S. citizenship, he invested $10,000 in a fast-food restaurant in Santa Ana, California.
In 1983, he returned to Pakistan, where he married Ruqayya. She is described in his Facebook post as “the most beautiful and wonderful young lady.”
They were back in California by 1984. Shabbir became manager of the busy Denny’s near Disneyland in Anaheim. A decade later, they bought Boondockers. They said the Marysville building, which they have sold, will become another restaurant.
The Balas’ children are their pride and joy. They have laminated copies of articles customers brought in after their son, Faraz Bala, 33, graduated from West Point in 2007. He had been a cross country runner and salutatorian at Snohomish High School. At the military academy, he was awarded the class ring — chiseled with West Point’s motto, “Duty Honor Country.”
With the U.S. Army, Faraz Bala served 15 months in Iraq. His mother remembers a sleepless night when she saw on TV news that a soldier had been killed in Mosul, the city in northern Iraq where her son’s unit had been. He also spent three years in Germany. Faraz Bala is now at the University of California at Berkeley working toward a master’s in business administration.
Their daughter, Sahar Bala, 27, has a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of San Francisco. She and her husband, software engineer Ganbileg Bor, live in San Francisco. Sahar wrote recently on Facebook about spending her childhood at Boondockers, and how the family’s restaurant “completely shaped who I am today.”
She noted the bonds between her family and Boondockers customers, especially after Shabbir Bala suffered what he described as “a massive heart attack” in 2001. He had two emergency surgeries and eventually used a left ventricle assist device, or LVAD. In his daughter’s wedding pictures, he is wearing the bulky device on a strap over his shoulder.
A midnight phone call brought lifesaving news. A donor heart was available. In January 2016, he had a heart transplant at UW Medicine Regional Heart Center. A compact and fit man, he is pleased to share that he has since taken 37 hikes, including a trek up Mount Pilchuck.
At Boondockers, Ruqayya Bala has overseen the menu. Chicken tikka masala has been a customer favorite, she said, along with a curry skillet breakfast dish.
“We’re happy for them to retire. You can see how much they love each other,” said Bill Witter, of Lake Stevens, who was having a last Boondockers breakfast with his wife, Linda. They saw Shabbir struggle with his heart condition. “He always had that positive attitude,” Bill Witter said.
Not everyone came to eat Wednesday. “Thanks for all your good work,” said Jennifer Smolen, who met the couple when she worked for the Washington Restaurant Association. Giving a goodbye hug, she said “I don’t want to talk about food, I want to talk about what you’re doing next.”
The future includes travel. Shabbir Bala has three sisters in Britain, family in India, two stepbrothers in Pakistan, other relatives in South Africa, and childhood friends in Canada. Next year, he hopes to complete a Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia that Muslims are expected to take at least once in their lives.
“Right now there’s so much bigotry,” he said. “I just want to pray for happiness and peace in this world.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.