Andra "AJ" Johnson
Andra "AJ" Johnson at Serenata Credit: Courtesy of @starchefs

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Andra “AJ” Johnson set out to write a game-changing book spotlighting Black culinary talent and addressing cultural neglect in the hospitality industry in 2018. As a general manager and partner at a Chevy Chase restaurant at the time, she was fed up with flipping through listicles in local food magazines and not seeing anyone who looked like her listed as an owner. The book, White Plates, Black Faces, would draw on the experiences of her peers to suss out why there are so few Black-owned hospitality businesses in Chocolate City.

“I had a partnership stake at Macon Bistro & Larder, and there weren’t a whole lot of other people I could talk to about what I was going through, and I was wondering why,” Johnson says. She gathered friends and colleagues for discussions and recorded them. “I thought that having everything written down would force the conversation in a way that would be the ticket to actual change.”

In the meantime, also in 2018, Johnson teamed up with Dr. Erinn Tucker and Furard Tate to launch DMV Black Restaurant Week. Like the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s Restaurant Week, the immediate goal was to bring attention to existing Black-owned restaurants and bars by offering discounts and deals. Each year the fall event has introduced more ambitious programming and involved more Black-owned business categories within the hospitality ecosystem like caterers, spirit makers, and linen-supply companies.

While Johnson was empowering others to seek out ownership opportunities, she got another shot at it herself. Daniella Senior brought Johnson on as a partner at her Latin cocktail bar inside La Cosecha. Serenata opened in the fall of 2019. Do the math, and six months later, the new business partners were staring down a global pandemic. Johnson’s book got bumped to the back shelf. 

“We worked really hard to stay open,” Johnson says. Serenata sold meals to World Central Kitchen, which distributed them to neighbors in need; held pop-ups highlighting Black bartenders’ talent; applied for grants; converted an old horse trailer into an outdoor bar, Spritz, featuring bubbly and low-ABV drinks; launched a line of to-go cocktails in pouches under the brand name Salud!; and offered weekly virtual cocktail classes. “We pivoted. Hard,” Johnson says. 

When Johnson came up for air, she thought about the book again. “Writing a book doesn’t help further the conversation when the entire bottom drops out,” she says. “What we knew of hospitality when I wrote the initial parts of this book no longer apply.” 

COVID-19 decimated the industry that Johnson loves, but it also generated opportunities for reinvention. “We were dealing with an entire city, country, and industry where workers didn’t trust businesses,” she says. Many of them left for safer jobs with higher and more stable pay. “So the initial meaning of White Plates, Black Faces changed because we can now actually ask for what we want. We don’t have to settle. People started reevaluating where they were employed.”

The pandemic wasn’t the only factor fueling change in the hospitality industry over the past two years. Johnson penned an essay for City Paper in 2020 during the June protests of the police killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd. It focused on the fight for racial justice in restaurants. 

“Restaurant owners can start investing in the D.C. community, not just the culture that we bring,” she wrote at the time. “They can do this by: not throwing away applications because they can’t pronounce someone’s name; acknowledging the work that employees of color do and hiring and promoting them accordingly; recognizing our cultural food as cuisine; listening to employees of color and standing behind them when they are being discriminated against by their own colleagues.”

Nearly two years later, Johnson can only talk about nominal progress. “Words that are hard for me to process are change and equity,” she says. “Those two things, in this country, it’s just not there. That’s not just a hospitality thing. It’s a culture shift that needs to happen.” 

Johnson is seeing more people involve themselves in tough conversations, including in the restaurant setting. “Several restaurant owners have started making space for time to process collective trauma for the Black community and creating safe spaces for people to go and talk,” Johnson says. Sometimes they seem sincere, other times opportunist. “I know several people of color that left those establishments because they felt like ownership might have been posturing and never really followed through when the spotlight was off of them.”

She shares one hopeful observation. “I don’t know if you’ve ever read through a restaurant’s orientation handbook—the one that’s reviewed by a lawyer and has big sections on discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying, and being an equal opportunity employer?” she says. “That was there to protect the business, not the employee.”

Not anymore: “I think we’ve moved the needle,” Johnson adds. “Now we’re looking at a cultural shift that’s holding restaurants accountable for those paragraphs, which is awesome. People are choosing to work at places and even make less money if they’re treated properly, with respect, and are in a space where they feel like they can be themselves.” 

There should be no repercussions if an employee speaks up about how they’re being treated at work, according to Johnson. “Empires” that partake in this sort of behavior, she says, are starting to fall. Consider the BIPOC employees who spoke out in December 2020 about atmosphere at A Rake’s Progress

Or when Del Mar employees walked out in May 2021. Server Naderia Wynn, who is Black, told City Paper she resigned from the Fabio Trabocchi restaurant because of “blatant racism and sexism being ignored.” She no longer “felt safe or comfortable going to work in an environment like that.” The restaurant was forced to close while they shopped for new workers.

As a boss, Johnson tries to help her employees find their voices in the industry. “If they want to branch out and explore who they are as artists and creators and storytellers behind this bar, they definitely can,” she says. A prep cook and bar manager at Serenata are currently making and selling vermouth together. And if people outgrow Serenata, so be it. “I want them to feel empowered and seek things they might not be able to get behind my bar and that’s OK. Loyalty comes in all shapes and sizes,” Johnson says. 

The through-line of Johnson’s career has been building pipelines to ownership for food and drink entrepreneurs. Her advice for budding entrepreneurs: “Be good to your people. Ask for help. Collaborate as much as possible. Stick to your vision.” 

She’s surprised by the influence she’s gained locally and nationally. “I didn’t think there would be so much recognition for just speaking my mind about the things that are wrong with the system,” she says. People approach her when she’s out on the town, hoping to bend her ear about their food and drink ideas.

Johnson also relaunched a website, whiteplatesblackfaces.com, with the help of her romantic partner, Sarah McCreary. The goal is to help Washingtonians get to know Johnson and the services she offers from consulting on restaurant cocktail menus to hosting virtual cocktail classes and developing custom cocktails for parties and events. When it’s not closed for renovations, the National Museum of Women in the Arts taps Johnson to serve themed happy hour drinks twice a month. 

But wait, the website says a White Plates, Black Faces book is forthcoming. Is that true? “Yes,” Johnson says. “It’s going to happen. But I need to sit down for a second.”

Catch Johnson on Tuesday, Feb. 22 at Serenata (1280 4th St. NE) for the last of Black History Month’s “Black-owned Tasting Tuesdays” from 6 to 9 p.m.