Credit: Naku Mayo

Reliable Tavern bartender Kapri Robinson spent the first half of 2019 launching a nonprofit organization that would spotlight the work of bartenders of color. Dubbed Chocolate City’s Best, it began as a bartending competition and evolved into a network that connects bartenders with educational opportunities and resources. One resource some bartenders are missing, according to Robinson, is photography. “Some people have never had headshots done,” she says. Such photos can help people in the industry build their careers. 

Enter photographer Naku Mayo of In His Eye Photography. He stepped in to take free head shots of nine D.C. bartenders of color as well as group photos that will be on display at a three-part pop-up held at The Gibson over the next month. Robinson is calling the series the “Beyond The Bar Gallery Pop-Up.”

In addition to posing for the camera, the featured bartenders participated in interviews that will be played on a loop at the pop-ups. “We asked, ‘What does chocolate city mean to you?’ ‘What does being a black bartender mean to you?’” Robinson says. “Between the nine of us we have a different range of how many years we’ve been working in the industry and a range of places.” 

In addition to Robinson, the photographed bartenders are Al Thompson of HanumanhMia Evans of Mixin Mimi Mixology, Shakara Ellison of Founding Farmers in Tysons Corner, James Roderick of Wonderland Ballroom and The Looking Glass Lounge, Valerie Graham of Jack Rose Dining Saloon and Copycat Co., Denaya Jones of Deestilled and HomesteadJosh Phuse of Nobu,and Michael Holiday Jr. of 600 T.

“We’re growing in this industry,” Robinson says. “We wanted to find a cool way to put these pieces out for people to see.” 

While there is a strong contingent of black bartenders, servers, and managers in D.C., the number of black bar and restaurant owners remains small. That’s one of the reasons DMV Black Restaurant Week was founded last year, according to co-founder Andra “AJ” Johnson

“The biggest opportunity is owning a space or running a space,” Robinson says. “You have Glendon [Hartley of Service Bar DC] who is doing awesome things. I think he’s such a great role model to lots of people who are trying to get there.” 

The Beyond The Bar Gallery Pop-Ups will be held June 24, July 1, and July 8 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at The Gibson, 2009 14th St. NW. Two of the bartenders captured in the photos will mix drinks during each night of the pop-up. Admission costs $20 and includes one drink. According to Robinson, ticket fees will fund this year’s Chocolate City’s Best cocktail competition.