Solana Vander Nat arrives at Heat Da Spot bundled up for a big day ahead—her first interview, followed by the hospitality industry job fair she spearheaded across the street at Hook Hall. Twenty-five restaurants signed up hoping to recruit staff, and more than 200 potential employees registered, she says.
The staffing crisis brought about by workers’ demands for better pay and benefits is but one challenge facing the industry that Vander Nat will support in her new role as the director of the Mayor’s Office on Nightlife and Culture.
“First and foremost, I’m more than an event planner,” she says straight away. When Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s administration broadcasted that she would succeed Shawn Townsend as the “night mayor,” some people were quick to fire off tweets questioning her qualifications. It’s hard to capture the totality of someone’s life experience in an appointment announcement.
Vander Nat says she has 11 years of experience in the nightlife industry. In 2010 she joined the team at DT Nation as an assistant manager. She eventually worked her way up to director of operations at the event, marketing, and entertainment business. Around 2016 she set out on her own and founded consulting firm Sol Support. In addition to event planning, Vander Nat assisted her nightlife clients with navigating processes such as obtaining business licenses, securing clean hands certificates, and applying for various relief grants during the pandemic.
Vander Nat also served under Anna Valero as the program manager of the Hook Hall Helps initiative, which put her face-to-face with laid-off bar, restaurant, and club employees. “I created the infrastructure that executed the distribution of nearly 10,000 meals and supply kits to over 3,100 nighttime economy workers affected by the pandemic,” she says.
She adds that at one point in her career, she was an ABRA license manager. “I worked with various nightlife establishments to make sure they were abiding by the city’s policies and procedures.” That also meant working with the Metropolitan Police Department “to ensure an establishment’s neighbors, employees, and patrons were safe.”
Vander Nat has two families cheering for her as she embarks on a huge challenge. She was born in an indigenous community in the mountains of Ecuador. When her birth mother died during childbirth at age 17, Vander Nat was placed in an orphanage and adopted by a Northern Virginia family—a man from the Netherlands and a woman from California.
In 2002, when Vander Nat was 17, she made a special trip to Ecuador to meet her birth family. “I’m blessed to have parents who supported my whole adoption journey,” she says. She met her father, her grandparents, and half siblings. Her godfather, Augusto de la Torre, has connections in Ecuador’s economic sector and facilitated Vander Nat’s adoption. This made it easier for her to find her birth family later in life. “My parents went to college with him,” she explains.
On the trip, Vander Nat says de la Torre showed her the phone he used to call her parents to let them know he’d found them a daughter. “Because nothing really changes in Ecuador,” she jokes. She keeps in touch with her birth family using WhatsApp.
City Paper sat down with Vander Nat to learn about how she plans to support D.C. nightlife and culture. It’s only her second week on the job, so she’s short on specifics and hesitant to weigh in on hot topics like whether the District should eliminate the tipped minimum wage. Her political instincts are already kicking in because she won’t pick favorites when we ask where she likes going out. One thing Vander Nat doesn’t lack is enthusiasm. “D.C. is definitely the District of Comebacks,” she says.
City Paper: This is a big job, why did you apply?
Solana Vander Nat: As a nightlife employee and entrepreneur that specializes in this area I’m aware it’s extremely important for the nightlife community to partner with the D.C. government. Building back the nightlife community and economy is a very daunting challenge, but it’s also an exciting time for business and the government. I’m excited to be part of Mayor Bowser’s forward-thinking administration to build upon the success of the office with what Shawn created and really increase the financial stability, confidence, and morality of the nighttime economy and the community.
CP: What do you say to people who offer criticism that you’ve never worked in bars or restaurants?
SVN: One of my clients, The Gryphon, I managed their brunch on Sundays. Definitely when they got busy, I was out there serving bacon and eggs and French toast and really just helping my team continue to work. We all know when it gets crazy. D.C. is infamous for Sunday brunches, all hands on deck are needed on the floor.
CP: Do you have any ideas for how to make sure industry workers are heard?
SVN: I’m really excited that Mayor Bowser is going to continue to listen to the nightlife industry workers’ needs by continuing to create career development opportunities and job placement opportunities like today’s job fair. It gives me opportunities to personally meet with the participants to learn what their current challenges are and how the Office of Nightlife and Culture can really serve them and help them recover.
CP: Local nightlife businesses can clash with their neighbors over noise and other issues. Are you prepared to help ease those kinds of tensions?
SVN: It’s important to listen to both sides—listen to what the nightlife businesses have to say and what their challenges are. And the neighbors, what their concerns and thoughts are. These two parties can come together to develop a creative solution and strategies to address specific needs.
CP: 2022 is going to be dominated by debate about Initiative 82, which, like Initiative 77, seeks to eliminate the tipped minimum wage in D.C. Voters passed Initiative 77 in 2018, but the D.C. Council overturned it. Do you have a position on that?
SVN: I am going to use that initiative to really engage, as always, with nightlife stakeholders to see how it affects all of those parties to address the issue at hand and create a decision that positively impacts the nightlife industry. I just want to hear from both parties before I commit to any decision.
CP: It’s hard to have a thriving nightlife economy if workers can’t get home. Metro doesn’t run late enough. Uber is expensive. Any solutions?
SVN: Being from the nightlife industry and working for years, I personally know the importance of transportation. Just because nightlife establishments close as late as 3 a.m. that doesn’t mean workers get home until, shoot, like 4 a.m. It gets very late. Mayor Bowser has always pushed Metro to provide extended hours to provide transportation for nightlife industry workers, and I’m excited to continue to work with her, her administration, our sister agencies, and other private relationships to continue to explore ways to find a solution for transportation issues.
CP: Like partnerships with Lyft?
SVN: Yes, exactly.
CP: What do you see as the “culture” part of the office?
SVN: I’m going to ensure the creative and cultural sectors feel included. We have some of the most amazing venues in the country right here, and it’s our job to help get their attendance to increase so they can continue to employ people. And also, the culture aspect is not just music, performance, and theater. It’s the creatives and artists that make up the community. I’m excited to see how the Office of Nightlife and Culture can work with 202 Creates.
CP: What about preserving go-go music and other things that make D.C. special?
SVN: The vast variety of venues that are here from Arena Stage to Lincoln Theatre to the Anacostia Playhouse—there are so many different venues that the District has to give cultural experiences to residents and tourists as they continue to come back to D.C.
CP: Are you a fan of streateries?
SVN: I think they’re extremely important, especially to small businesses and particularly for minority-owned small businesses. They create an opportunity to retain their customers because some people still don’t feel comfortable eating inside. It creates a way to increase foot traffic. My mom, she’s 75. She’s very funny when she makes a decision, she’s a tough woman. She will still not eat inside. She has us outside in our blankets eating together as a family. It’s great because we can continue to experience restaurants.
CP: If people have questions or need your help, what is the best way for them to get in contact with you?
SVN: Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re excited to follow-up and continue to provide proactive support; give guidance on city policies and procedures; and to really help nightlife establishments navigate licensing, certifications, and permit requirements.