A Black-woman led educational events series that aims to empower diners to have better experiences in restaurants is launching in D.C. Its chief goal is to give customers, especially BIPOC customers, the confidence to walk into wine shops and restaurants and engage with sommeliers and other hospitality professionals in more meaningful and inclusive ways. Empowering The Diner comes from founder Erica Christian, a long-time local hospitality professional and sommelier, and co-founder Kapri Robinson, who started Chocolate City’s Best and formerly tended bar at Reliable Tavern.
“Hospitality happens in the moment when you connect with an individual,” Christian says. “Black women are really good at that. I’ve been on the other side of the bar from Kapri. We want to guide people and give them that feeling of being like: ‘I know what I like, I discovered something I like, or I can explore food with a sense of wonder and not feel inhibited by a professional looking down on me saying why don’t you like this?’”
“Guests might not know the lingo or might not know the tasting notes that can describe what they want,” Robinson adds. “Being able to speak even when you’re faced with an impatient server or bartender who isn’t willing to listen to what you want … What we’re solving here is a communication gap and allowing it to be more guest-led.”
The founders say unconscious bias and stereotypes continue to plague their industry. There has been no shortage of instances of restaurants allegedly discriminating against their Black customers. Food writer Korsha Wilson’s Eater essay “A Critic For All Seasons” asks what restaurant criticism would look like if “it represented diners like her.” She addresses some commonly held stereotypes about imbibing while Black.
“I’ve been handed the dessert wine menu at a bar because the bartender assumed I liked sweet wines, and been asked, ‘Have you had a Negroni before?’ when ordering one—and even after assuring them that yes, I had, still suffered through a lecture explaining the concept of bitter flavor profiles,” Wilson writes. “Experiences like these are constant reminders to people of color that they’re an ‘other’ in dining spaces.”
“You can own loving a sweeter style of beverage,” Robinson says. “It’s not a monolith, though. It’s not the only thing happening. There are no wrong choices.” She’s long thought about how unconscious bias plays out in her industry. “It has such an effect on how you treat people that come through your door. What was your first thought? Why? How did your mood change? How are you talking to everyone the same way? How are you giving the same service to everyone?”
Empowering The Diner‘s first four-part series runs May 21, May 28, June 4, and June 11. Each Friday night, the virtual event kicks off at 8:30 p.m. Tickets will go on sale April 1. The interactive sessions come with a bottle of wine and a recipe from a BIPOC chef. Participants will also receive educational materials like zines to bolster the experience. Future series will focus on deepening knowledge about other products like gin and madeira.
Christian, who has worked at Michelin-starred Tail Up Goat, is frustrated with how wine pairings are sometimes presented. “You’re always told, ‘This goes with prawns, this goes with pasta, this goes with red sauce,’” she says. “That to me is colonizer-centered. How are we seasoning the prawns? Are they spicy? Grilled? I think it’s much more educational to see a recipe and see those spices than to say that Riesling pairs with seafood.”
Encouraging BIPOC-owned restaurants to step up their wine offerings is a secondary goal of Empowering The Diner. “We never see wine pairings with our food across cultures,” Christian continues. “No one is saying, ‘This goes with soul food. This goes with jerk chicken or rice and beans.’” Robinson adds: “That should be the norm everywhere. The intimidation behind the wine world and wine sales blocks off wanting to grasp at that type of education. We gotta bust down those brick walls, man.”
The debut of Empowering The Diner comes after a particularly trying year for Christian. In addition to weathering the economic struggles that accompany the pandemic and the emotional devastation that comes with watching police kill Black Americans, Christian was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease that limits her physically. She says she was laid off from Domestique in September. She transitioned from a role that involved physical labor to remote work where she was writing content for the natural wine shop’s newsletter, among other duties.
“Even the opportunities I thought were the best, like Domestique, ended up disappointing,” Christian says. At one point she was sleeping on a friend’s couch because she couldn’t afford her own apartment. That has since changed. “When we talk about seats at the table and there’s no seats left, what kind of dinner party is that,” she asks.
Christian says Robinson and her other BIPOC friends in the wine world lifted her spirits and encouraged her to forge her own initiative. “Why pour myself into fighting the world and all these [oppressive] systems,” she says, “when I can create something that’s uninhibited by them?”