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Photo of Andra “AJ” Johnson by Darrow Montgomery

Andra “AJ” Johnson, the general manager of Macon Bistro & Larder, looks forward to reading Washingtonian’s “100 Very Best Restaurants” issue every year. But when she sat down to read the 2017 edition, she was jolted by an unnerving discovery. “Going through it, I realized that there were no black owners,” she says. 

The selections focused on Asian food, French food, and big corporate owners. “I recognize that decor and reach and neighborhood have to do with the entire package,” Johnson says, “but there is zero way that in Chocolate City we have nobody.” 

Washingtonian is not alone in the shortage of black-owned restaurants on its lists. Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema didn’t highlight any in his 2017 “Fall Dining Guide,” which is traditionally a collection of his favorite restaurants and recent discoveries. Eater’s list of “The 38 Essential Restaurants in D.C.,” published in January, included only Zenebech from Zenebech Dessu and Gebrehanna Demissie

The 2018 rankings in Washingtonian showed improvement. Kwame Onwuachi’s restaurant Kith and Kin placed 78th and Ethiopian restaurant Chercher from Alemayehu Abebe landed in the 96th position. But Johnson had already committed to making a change.

Johnson was born in New York and lived in the Bronx for three years before moving to Los Angeles. She and her family made their way to the D.C. area in 1998, where Johnson has remained, save for two years she spent at Temple University in Philadelphia. “I went to school but I didn’t go to class, let’s put it that way,” she jokes.

Her resume includes stops at Open City, The Diner, Eola, Le Diplomate, and Robert Wiedmaier’s Mussel Bar & Grille in both Arlington and Bethesda. She was still employed by Wiedmaier when the Macon Bistro & Larder opportunity presented itself. Johnson had passed her level one sommelier exam and was looking for a place to use her wine knowledge. 

Johnson has spent more than three years at the Southern-meets-French restaurant in Chevy Chase. In addition to serving as general manager, she is the beverage director. 

Johnson’s creativity also flows when it comes to cocktails. For the premiere of Black Panther, which coincided with Black History Month, she drew up a slate of cocktails like “Wakanda Ish is This?” with two types of rum, lime, orange, pineapple, peach, and brown sugar and “T’challa Back” with gin, ginger liqueur, amaro, hopped grapefruit bitters, and club soda. 

Over the course of three days, the bar sold $1,500 worth of Wakanda-themed drinks. That inspired Johnson to donate $3,000 of her own money to organizations including Black Lives Matter and the ACLU. She’s earmarked $1,000 of that sum to go to a specific D.C. public school’s science program and is working through the paperwork to make that possible.

The 30-year-old is about a year into working on a book, White Plates, Black Faces, which addresses the African-American experience and “cultural neglect” in the local restaurant industry. 

“It’s not just an opinion book,” Johnson says. “It’s me collecting stories and doing interviews. I can’t tell this story if it’s just opinion-based. It has to be fact based—this is our collective experience.” She distributed a questionnaire to and recorded the experiences of local black restaurant professionals to bolster her observations. She says her conclusions are based on a deeper understanding of the discrepancies she found while researching what she calls the “wealth gap.”

She hopes to shop around the book highlighting black service industry professionals to publishers over the summer in order to get the finished product to readers by the end of the year. “I want to acknowledge actual talent and make sure we’re getting a fair shake,” she says. 

The crux of the issue Johnson explores in her book isn’t just that the media skimps on its coverage of black-owned restaurants. It’s that there are so few black-owned restaurants in D.C. to begin with. Few pipelines exist to help service industry workers move from employee to employer. 

Johnson believes that real estate development has forced African-Americans and other people of color out of booming, restaurant-dense neighborhoods, creating long commutes. 

“First kick the people out, then build the condos, then put restaurants underneath them,” she says. “That’s the process across the board, which means we’re not living where we could be working. That just bugs me.” 

In addition to writing a book, Johnson is creating a web series, White Plates, Black Faces: Breaking Bread. The first episode will debut in April. It brings together black food and beverage professionals to talk openly and honestly about their experiences. 

One episode features Rabia Kamara of Ruby Scoops and Morgan Fykes, a former server and bartender who created the interview series and website DCFunemployment. Fykes works to highlight “women doing what they love” in various fields.

Kamara talks about the design of her company’s logo. “I tell other black entrepreneurs to really be themselves,” she says in a clip. “It was very important to me not that the logo looked like me, but that it represented blackness—I wanted it to be a brown, curly haired girl. … I’m steadfast in who I am and what I represent. There is plenty of cookie cutter shit going on. Don’t be cookie cutter.”

In the same episode, Fykes talks about how she couldn’t connect the dots to make bartending a sustainable, long-term career. “There wasn’t a transition between OK, you want to make a career out of bartending, here’s the path to do that. Here are the people that are going to support you. Here are the people that are going to invest in you having a business down the line.”

Breaking into the hospitality industry, whether as an entry-level employee or an owner, can be an intimidating uphill battle rife with obstacles, especially at restaurants and bars that don’t already have African-Americans in positions with hiring power.

“We have to look over people’s shoulders to see what they’re doing and copy that because they’re talking to us with their back to us,” Johnson says. “On the back-of-house side you have to have somebody trust you first.”

Johnson was fortunate to find teachers early on. “The female beverage community in this city is terrific,” she says, recalling a time she met up with bartender Rachel Sergi at The Diner at 3 a.m. She asked Sergi to teach her everything there is to know about Scotch and she agreed.

Later at Eola, Darlin Kulla gave Johnson her start in wine. “I guessed all of the wines in a blind taste test in a pre-shift meeting,” Johnson recalls. “She’s like, ‘You need to do this. Come in an hour early. Read these books. Join these tasting groups with me and just learn.’” 

Johnson has been tracking culinary school enrollment on a national level and says African-American enrollment is up  25 to 30 percent. Yet African-Americans in D.C. still hold fewer ownership and leadership roles than in other cities.

A 2015 Restaurant Opportunities Centers United study, “Ending Jim Crow in America’s Restaurants: Racial and Gender Occupational Segregation in the Restaurant Industry,” found that in California, people of color are paid 56 percent less than white workers. Women and workers of color, according to the study, are concentrated in the lowest paying positions in the industry.

Johnson suggests there are two tracks that lead to restaurant ownership. “In the restaurant industry you either have to be on T.V. and court these private buyers who have no idea how to run a restaurant or you need to go to a bank,” Johnson says. “Historically black people have had a hard time going to banks and getting funding for anything.” 

Recognizing how much aspiring black business owners stand to learn from trailblazers who have already found success, Johnson decided to create a free online database inspired by Victor Hugo Green’s Negro Motorist Green Book. Published from 1936 to 1966, the mailman from Harlem pointed his readers to businesses that were friendly to African-Americans during the height of segregation. 

“It’s focused on building black business around the city, not just restaurants,” Johnson explains. She describes her “DMV Green Book” as Yelp, but without the reviews. The goal is to disseminate information about how to start a business, thus encouraging her peers to make money for themselves instead of “breaking their backs every day for someone else.” It will also launch in April.

“You can go online, hit a link and go, ‘Oh, that guy is a personal trainer. That sounds like a cool thing for me to get into. How do I do that? How do I find a space? Where can I find him to go talk about it?’” Johnson says the business owners who have signed on to participate are eager to help others.

The DMV Green Book listings will be accompanied by short videos produced by the same team as Johnson’s web series—executive producer Debra Alligood White (Johnson’s mother), director Melina Marie Greene, and camerawoman and editor Khristine Renay. They’ll highlight each business owner’s space, as well as their responses to questions about their ups and downs while getting their enterprises off the ground.

Johnson has been surprised by how candid some of the business owners have been about the discrimination they’ve faced. “Some of these stories make you go, ‘Oh my god, stop the tape!’” she says. “You don’t have to name names,” she tells them. “You can be as vague or direct as you want—we’ll still be able to understand the tone.’” 

Kamara, who met Johnson this year through White Plates, Black Faces is optimistic about the potential impact of Johnson’s multifaceted project. “It’s going to be awesome shining that light on those who are passionate and making our way,” she says. 

“A lot of times when we bring up issues related to race, people diminish what we’re feeling,” Kamara continues. “My hope is people will watch and learn what we’re going through so we can make it better for young people coming up into the industry.” 

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.