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Andra “AJ” Johnson Is Changing The Conversation About Race In Restaurants

Empowering people of color to build a more diverse hospitality industry through community.

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Andra “AJ” Johnson has been working in the eclectic DMV restaurant scene since first beginning as a hostess at 14. From back waiter and curbside to-go server to assistant general manager and beverage director, AJ has been through it all, eventually earning her Cicerone Certified Beer Server certification, as well as a Level I in the Court of Master Sommeliers. She currently serves as a partner and bar director at Serenata, a full-service Latin American themed craft cocktail bar which opened in October 2019 inside La Cosecha in Washington DC’s Union Market.

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I remember when Washingtonian magazine’s 2018 list of the top 100 restaurants came out—I was sitting in my bar doing payroll. It’s the biggest dining list in the city that matters for us in the industry. I’m looking at it cause at that point I’ve invested in a restaurant called Macon Bistro & Larder. I look through it and see that Kwame Onwuachi made the list at number 78 for Kith/Kin, and Chercher, an Ethiopian restaurant by Alemayehu Abebe, placed 96th. But nothing else before that. I started digging and went back almost ten years and realized that there were no black-owned restaurants that were on those lists at all. And I remember thinking, “Holy shit, something’s wrong. Something’s gotta be wrong. Because in my mind, from the age of 14 working at Chili’s, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to own a restaurant, be an investor by the time I’m 30.’” Which I did. But getting the recognition that equated to the work that was being put in was not there. And the reason why that one particular year was essential to me was, because in 2017, Kwame had gotten chewed up in the media for having a $500 tasting menu at Shaw Bijou, which abruptly shut down.

Witnessing that and seeing that there were no black owners, and then trying to do my due diligence to see if there were any black executive chefs on that list—apart from Cork which made the list in 2013 and 2014, there were none—I started working on my project, “White Plates, Black Faces,” about the cultural neglect in the local restaurant industry.

Race has always been a very integral part of who I am. But at the time I was first starting out as a hostess at the Chili’s in Rockville, I didn’t see it at first. Though I was initially hired as a hostess, I was often asked to buss tables before being put in a food-running role, and finally a curbside to-go server role. This was my first job—we’re talking about a 14- or 15-year-old kid right now, right? Whereas my good friend from my all-girls high school, who initially referred me for the position—her next natural progression was to a server. Even though she stayed just as long as I did, which was on and off for three years, our roles were different because our skin happened to be different colors.

My coworker, Mike, who was like the busser-food runner extraordinaire, never got moved up to server for the entire time that we worked together. In a restaurant that would not have functioned without him. It was only when I came back from my first year of college that he finally became a server. But only after begging and pleading because he had a kid on the way.

I keep a lot of things with me that that job taught me. How to hold the biggest tray in the world with hot food on it. How to keep an accurate waitlist. But what really stuck with me was the way that people perceive you and your situation. It’s one hundred percent indicative of where you’ll land and where they’ll try to keep you in restaurants. It takes a lot to get the respect you deserve, to be seen as something more than just a body. And, I think that has a lot to do with where you start.

When I came back home to DC in 2006 after leaving Temple University early, I was asked to be the assistant general manager of Mayorga Coffee at Tivoli Theater on 14th Street. I got asked to be in this role because my friend, a young black man, who was just a little bit older than me and who I have been friends with since I was 14 years old, called me up and said “Hey, look, I’m opening this place. Do you want to come and do this with me?” That’s opportunity. The people that you know in this business can get you a lot of places.

At 21, I moved on from Mayorga and became the managing server at Open City. Half a year into it, I was asked to do cocktails. That was the place where I was able to learn. As the closing manager, I had the keys, so if I needed to test the products, if I needed to taste things that I had never tasted before, I was able to do so. Despite having to work at figuring out liqueurs and practicing making martinis, I had the access and the opportunity. Because the right people gave me a chance to do so.

After that, I started applying to more higher-end dining jobs. But it was difficult to break into—this is before the super-huge restaurant boom happened in Washington. Before all the tattooed chefs and the big ol’ beards. Before the Edison light-bulb signs, the wooden stools and exposed brick. I was applying to all these places literally tattooed from head to toe. With dreads. I’m young. I’m black. You know that same sort of situation at Chili’s with Mike? Now it was me getting treated that way. They didn’t care that I was previously an assistant general manager or beverage director or floor manager. I went from making you know, high five figures a year, to being unemployed. And that was really disheartening.

Eventually, I got a call back from Eola, a tasting menu-only restaurant from Dan Singhofen. That’s where I got my education. It’s also where I was given the opportunity to learn about wines and really sort of flex and exercise my palate. One day my manager came up to me and said, “Look, you just called all these wines correctly, blind tasting them. You know, you can do this, right?” She was insistent. I was ushered through even though I didn’t fit the stereotypical description of someone in that role. I got a lot more out of that entire situation, and it’s literally because someone looked at me and said: “Okay, maybe not the perfect fit, but we can make this work.”

In 2018, Dr. Erinn Tucker, who had just become the Faculty Director of the Global Hospitality Leadership master’s program at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies, reached out after reading the Washington City Paper article that Laura Hayes had written about me and my work on “White Plates, Black Faces.” I ended up meeting with her and Furard Tate, a third-generation Washingtonian who used to own a restaurant in DC before being pushed out as a result of gentrification. It was an interesting conversation, and I ended up showing her some of the roundtables with different people in the industry that I was doing with my videography team. The idea behind those talks was really to get people in similar industries, but with different stories and paths, to sit down and talk so that people could actually see that this wasn’t a singular problem. It wasn’t just me having issues. It’s a much larger problem and discrepancy between what people of color in the industry see and what other people see. It was to get the conversation started.

When we look at what DC means when it’s referred to as Chocolate City, it was one of the first cities where black people en masse could enjoy the entertainment and the hospitality that they had been providing for other people for so long. U Street Corridor in and of itself had 300 black-owned businesses just on that strip in the 1920s and 1930s. But once the riots happened and buildings were emptied out, these ownership stakes began to happen. The fact that people outside of the city were welcomed with open arms is a great thing because that is what DC as a whole represents. We are a tight-knit microcosm of the entire country. But at the same time, those same courtesies haven’t been extended to restaurateurs of color. They were just sort of pushed out. And that’s not okay for me.

Fast forward to a few months later, Dr. Tucker calls me and asks me, “What do you think about doing DMV Black Restaurant Week?” And I was like yeaaaah. The way that we had envisioned that was really based on what Dr. Tucker wanted to give back to the industry to help make it grow. Our tagline—education, good food, and culture—focuses on enriching the city by including diverse restaurants, highlighting black-owned restaurants and businesses, and creating a platform where people of color felt comfortable coming to ask questions and having access to funds and resources.

I’m going to tell you right now that money is green. So it was essential for us to help our restaurant partners get visibility and put themselves in front of audiences with expendable incomes who were willing to spend that money. Our partnership with the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) has offered the 30 restaurants that signed up a year free of education. That’s ServSafe classes and alcohol training for free. All they have to do is sign their staff up for classes. That’s a big deal!

With regards to the current COVID-19 situation, I view the restaurant industry as an independent industry, independent of government funding, independent of subsidies. And we are responsible for the people that work in it. It’s been disheartening to see so many people being laid off, or healthcare just being taken away during this pandemic without warning. You’ve got people who have 30 or 40 restaurants, and they’ve literally just fired everybody. And that is not appropriate. Here at our full-service Latin American cocktail bar, Serenata, because my staff is on the smaller side, we have provided our own sort of stimulus plan in terms of pay advances. We’re also making sure we’re going through our personal paid sick leave and any PTO that our staff qualifies for at this time. And, on top of that, we’re providing pay advances for people that have been with us for at least three months.

Because we’re in a market setting inside La Cosecha Market in Union Market and only open four days a week, our flow of business is fluctuating, and that has been really, really difficult. There’s only two of us working at Serenata right now—just me and our executive chef, Tatiana Mora. We did decide to do delivery through Uber Eats and takeout through Toast, but since we’re definitely more of a cocktail bar, it’s been a little bit more complicated in terms of just driving business. We are still selling gift cards. We have those available online. And we’re also still selling our passports, which is a cocktail flight that we do. But I’d say like right now, from a usage standpoint, getting the gift card certainly helps a lot more because that can be redeemed by us immediately.

Outside of that, though, we’ve been working with a couple of other restaurant partners to get meals to DC public schools and some elderly centers over in Wards 7 and 8. It’s fulfilling in that way to try and help people who are definitely without. Our whole industry is based on creating and giving a service, and since we’re not currently creating and providing an experience, then it really just is people coming out to try to help others.

One of my really good friends, April Johnson, and her company Happied—a happy hour app around DC—is doing a lot to help people within the industry right now with a virtual happy hour series. As bartenders, we want to continue to do what we love to do, which is making cocktails, talking with guests, selling and educating. The way that April set that up has just been fantastic and really, really helpful for us. Outside of the initial ticket price that people pay—$10 a person—you do also receive tips. And again, just how like tips work in a restaurant or bar setting. It’s not required of you, but you know, you need to tip your bartender. The technological side of it is cool because it’s hosted through Zoom, where you can have up to a hundred people on at the same time. Happied’s doing a profit-share on that, so a portion of ticket sales also goes directly to the bartender. It’s free marketing for you and your bar. Again, every little bit at this point counts. And it helps.

For the people that have gone out of their way—and I mean, honestly gone out of their way to make things accessible to people in this city without any strings attached—my hat’s off to them. The more sort of homegrown and humble restaurateurs and companies that saw what the industry needed, and are there actually to help people, are doing the right thing. Chef Adam Greenberg of Coconut Club, who’s starting a full-on market, is doing the right thing. Knead Hospitality, Succotash, that whole group, they’re doing the right thing. Hook Hall is doing the right thing.

When we come out on the other side of this, it’s going to be about who helped. If you’re doing the right thing and creating that loyalty, people will see that. I feel like we’re gonna be okay, coming out of this. I think that people will then definitely pick and choose who their alliances are with. They’re going to be picking different jobs after this. But I think they’re also going to say, “Hey, I want to be with a company that’s secure. And even if it’s not the largest company in the world, at least they take care of me when I need it.”