For Erica Christian, it all began with a dream.
“I came up with the idea while working at Domestique Wine,” Christian, a wine sommelier who has also worked at Tail Up Goat, recalls. “I remember I wanted a less colonial-centric wine engagement. People, especially Black folx, don’t get to explore within American society.”
Within a few years, Christian worked toward making her dream a reality by teaming up with her best friend and fellow beverage industry entrepreneur Kapri Robinson, who recently starred in Netflix’s “Drink Masters.” Together, they founded Empowering the Diner in 2021, which challenges perspectives and gatekeeping practices in hospitality toward BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities through supper clubs and pop-ups. Guests attending Christian’s events can always expect a creative and engaging theme, like a five-course tasting menu and wine pairing that explores the African diaspora through the Southern Creole lens; an event pairing sherry with songs by Sade Adu; or a disco party that celebrates the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the ’70s. Christian sat down with us to share about recently venturing into creating cocktails, winning the best cocktail at DMV Black Restaurant Week, achieving her goals with a chronic illness and what she would like to pursue next.
District Fray: Most of your events involve a collaboration with another person in the hospitality industry, like a chef, bartender or even a DJ. Why is collaboration a central part in achieving your mission?
Erica Christian: First, I’ll say the collaboration perspective comes to me through chronic illness. I’ve been experiencing chronic pain for more than a decade, and I’ve been going to doctors in the city and denied all types of care. Then, two years ago during Covid-19 times, I finally got an appointment with a rheumatologist. I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune disorder that causes your joints to fuse. It’s an inflammatory disease. It can be quite degenerative if you’re not on treatment. And then this last year, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic musculoskeletal pain disorder. Being ill made me realize I cannot do a lot alone. I think the power of collaboration comes in building community resilience against the people who don’t necessarily believe in you. Also, I think the people you see go at alone often end up leaving their own moral compass behind. I think community is necessary for accountability and to get the actionable support you need to [fulfill] your vision.
You described winning the DMV Black Restaurant Week R. R. Bowie Cocktail Competition as one of your most fulfilling experiences. Can you elaborate?
I’ve been making cocktails since June, though I’ve been around cocktails for a while being in hospitality. It’s never been something I considered within my wheelhouse and not something I thought I would be doing. Showing up to a bartending competition as a person with mobility issues and chronic illness, and having space to tell my story in a way that was fruitful, was definitely one of the most meaningful things. Pouring wine is great, but this I made with my hands after hours and hours of labor. I made my own nonalcoholic-based spirit from a gluten-free African green and spices that aligned with my Ayurvedic constitution. People came up to me saying, “Wow. Your story really inspired me. You make me feel like I can keep going and get through things.” That is the actual thing I care about. The impact.
How would you describe the local creative community?
I’m lucky to be surrounded by other people who want to make it better. All my friends are so artistic and talented. We are building this kind of wild community and giving action to the things we want. We spent two years of people reading anti-racism books, but no one acts like they have. It’s about how do you engage with the information you’ve taken in. Take Kapri. She did Chocolate City’s Best [a nonprofit dedicated to creating networks and opportunities for Black and brown people in hospitality]. She’s a perfect example of saying, “I want to see more representation. I see how good we are as Black and brown bartenders. How can I make people see this?” And then we do. We live it.
What can be improved?
None of us have the money we need. It’s crazy. I think people have this perception of people in beverage — they’ll see me drinking champagne and all these things — but all of this is sponsored. Half of us live paycheck to paycheck. We can’t pay our rent. If you have insurance, you have the highest deductible. I think what we really need to do is start coming together as a community and demanding what we need. Can we create something where we can start legally building affordable co-op spaces, so we can have a space that can thrive and not one sole business has to pay the rent?
Who would attend your ideal dinner party?
I honestly think about this a lot. I already have the dream. I’ve received so much help from so many people. I’ll have my GoFundMe QR code out or my Venmo, or Cash App at events and they’ve all given me so much money. Achieving all of this isn’t without people’s support. What I do doesn’t matter if people aren’t here to interact with it. So, my dream is to throw a dinner I host where everything is completely taken care of for anyone who has either come to my past events or supported me in some way. All of my friends I would have at a special table. It’s a lot for me to receive so much and I want to give back.
Rapid Fire Round:
D.C. bar when you want to splurge? Allegory. Kapri Robinson works there!
Favorite low-key bar? Nido Wine Shop and Market. Folx don’t know you can drink wine there.
Go-to cocktail? Anything with sherry — a Sherry Collins or an Adonis.
Wine people sleep on? Sherry. My favorite styles are Manzanilla and Oloroso.
Favorite holiday tradition? Watching the old claymation and puppet Christmas movies. I love “A Year Without Santa Claus” and the OG puppet “Jack Frost.”
Local artist, bartender, musician or creative to support? All of the folx working to collaborate and build together. Events like Moody Mondays led by dj unt.il / Kawthar Ahmed at Selina.
Favorite way to practice self-care? Listening to music. Music breeds movement in me, regardless of the pain and lack of mobility I experience. It takes me to a place of joy beyond pain.
Song on repeat? “Omw” by ((( O ))).
Look out for details on Empowering the Diner’s upcoming coffee-based drink pop-up event “Starbucks Could Never.” Christian is also partnering with Green Almond Pantry for future supper clubs. Learn more about Empowering the Diner and stay up-to-date on upcoming event details by visiting their website at empoweringthediner.com or following them @empoweringthediner.