It wasn’t an early love of fine beverages that first landed Andra “AJ” Johnson in the hospitality industry.
“In high school, I had a growing shoe fetish,” she recalls of her formative years spent in the DMV. “Waking my mom up at 6 a.m. to camp out in front of a store and pick up the new [Nike] SBs or the new Vans wasn’t her aesthetic at all. So her answer to all of that was, ‘Well, I mean, you could get a job.’”
Johnson’s first job was at Chili’s in Rockville as a means to support her shoe habit. But it quickly evolved into something more.
“It didn’t take long for me to be like, ‘Okay, this is exactly what I want to do with my life. I want to have my own restaurant by the time I’m 30.’”
She picked up jobs at various fast-casual spots over the next few years, with accompanying opportunities to learn the craft. At Open City in upper Northwest D.C., she was promoted to managing server and then put in charge of creating a cocktail program.
“That really sparked everything from a beverage standpoint,” she says. “I had keys to the business, and so if I needed to be there early to test some stuff or taste different liqueurs [or] if I needed to be there late to figure out cocktails and things that I wanted to put on the menu, I had the opportunity to do that.”
Eventually, Johnson decided it was time to look beyond fast casual.
“I knew there was more, I just didn’t know how to go about finding it,” she says. “I was unemployed for almost eight months, trying to figure out places that fit me and navigate what it meant to be in the fine dining scene in Washington, D.C. because I didn’t know. It was difficult – my hair [and] the tattoos made it really hard to find jobs.”
Then Darlin Kulla, the general manager of now-shuttered Eola, took a chance on Johnson.
“She was like, ‘You have no experience in doing this. I’m going to have to teach you from the bottom, huh?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I can do it. I promise I can do it.’ And I did.”
In that upscale dining environment, Johnson worked to hone her palate, specifically in wine. She credits Kulla’s support for jumpstarting her career in the beverage world.
“She nurtured my palate as it went along, and encouraged me to find more and do more and exercise my palate as much as possible.”
When Eola closed, Johnson went on to run both the wine and cocktail programs at Mussel Bar and Grille and earn her level one sommelier certification. Then, Kulla introduced Johnson to a connection that landed her a position as assistant general manager at Macon Bistro & Larder in 2014.
Her boss there, Gene Alexeyev, was similarly supportive of Johnson’s growth as a beverage professional, bringing her in on tastings and including her in key aspects of the business. Now, she makes a conscious effort to pay it forward.
“I try to do that with my staff,” she says. “[If] you have somebody that is giving the energy, then show them the door. It’s their choice to walk through it, but my onus is to show them the door.”
Right on cue, she eventually became a managing partner and general manager at Macon.
“That was the very first restaurant I invested in or had any kind of ownership stake in, like I had dreamed in my head. [At] 30 years old, I hit it.”
After four years, Johnson parted ways with Macon from a daily operations standpoint and spent some time consulting with spots like Unconventional Diner, Dyllan’s Raw Bar Grill, and Mr. Braxton Bar & Kitchen before stepping behind the bar at Bresca.
While working at Bresca, Johnson eventually met her future business partner, Daniella Senior, through a women’s leadership steering committee with fellow industry professionals.
“She pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, do you want to open this bar with me?’” Johnson recalls.
The vision for the bar, a stone’s throw from neighboring Union Market, is to showcase Latin culture, from the Caribbean to South America. Johnson’s family is from Jamaica, but she still felt like she had a lot to learn before diving into the details.
“For six months, I immersed myself in everything I did not know – trying to work on my Spanish [and] making sure that every ingredient tied into the indigenous fruits that come from a certain country.”
The opening menu plotted the various cocktails on a map, with many of the drinks and ingredients written in Spanish.
“The idea is that you’re transported. It’s singing a song to the native country, but it is also immersing someone in that culture.”
When the pandemic arrived, Johnson and her partners kicked things into overdrive to keep the lights on. They began hosting virtual cocktail classes, which were a hit and have been running consecutively for more than 22 weeks – even after the market opened its doors to visitors again. Serenata is currently open for walk-up ordering, seating at the communal tables, and of course, takeout and delivery.
While guests still can’t physically pull up a seat at her bar, she’s managed to maintain a sense of closeness virtually.
“I have all these signs around my bar. ‘Don’t stand here’ and ‘Please go over there.’ There is a level of sterility that makes the restaurant industry not very appealing or as sexy as it used to be. But we can adjust and atone for that. Every Friday, my class gets on and you’re sitting at my bar. These are my regulars now.”
That’s not to say it’s easy. She is constantly going the extra mile for regular customers or finding ways to bring in new ones.
“It’s a lot, but [will] I have my business fail because I’m tired? No.”
Even while the business is adapting to challenges of its own, Johnson and her partners are committed to the fight for equality. Johnson has been a vocal advocate for racial equity in the hospitality industry since she first noticed the lack of representation of chefs of color on Washingtonian’s annual list of 100 best restaurants.
Speaking up about the issue garnered attention from Dr. Erinn Tucker and chef Furard Tate, who then teamed up with Johnson to start DMV Black Restaurant Week in 2018. The initiative encompasses a cocktail competition highlighting Black bartenders, an educational conference on business ownership and management, and the signature restaurant week discounts and specials at participating Black-owned restaurants.
Amid this year’s Black Lives Matter movement, however, Johnson struggled with finding her place given the risks associated with the pandemic.
“I want to be down there on the frontlines,” she says. “[But] right now, as a 33-year-old woman who has a partner at home, two dogs and a cat, a mortgage, a family who cares about me, and a business that cannot – and does not – open unless I’m here, I can’t be.”
She’s made the difficult decision to put the safety of her customers and staff first.
“There’s a global pandemic. I’m scared every single day. I don’t want to be responsible for making anybody sick. At that point, you feel kind of useless. You feel like you let people down because you’re supposed to be this champion, right?”
Johnson says impostor syndrome was starting to set in when a call from a friend snapped her out of it.
“I remembered that activism is multifaceted,” she says. “You can change the world by doing what you’re best at. If you try to do something that somebody else is doing, [who] is better than you at it, then you’re doing a disservice to the actual mission. Let the people who are in this lane do this, and you stay in your lane and do this.”
Taking inspiration from the fundraisers she used to run at Macon, Johnson found her lane. She picked up the phone and called Black bartenders to launch a cocktail pop-up at Serenata to raise money for local causes in support of the Black community.
“Everybody went into it with gusto because [almost] all of us at that point had not gone down to the frontlines, and we felt stuck.”
The initial lineup featured drinks by Johnson and fellow bartenders Kapri Robinson, Frank Mills and Richard Sterling, as well as desserts by pastry chef Paola Velez. Johnson recruited Naku and Christina Mayo for photography and videography and Lorena Prada for design.
After one week of sales in June, they raised more than $11,000. Johnson knew she had cracked it.
“This is how we can put our talents to work in order to create something that’s more sustainable for the future,” she says. “I’m super grateful – 100 percent so grateful for the people I know, the connections I’ve made, and the outpouring from the consumers and guests and participants that gave a crap.”
The original team has since become the organizing committee for Back to Black, which had another successful event in August at Roy Boys featuring bartenders Michael Holliday, Princess Johnson, Al Thompson, Chrissy Sheffey and Johnson herself, as well as chef Angel Barreto and artist Kia Green. That event raised more than $8,000.
The organizers have plans for another pop-up in tandem with DMV Black Restaurant Week, which will take place this year from November 8 to 15. This year’s lineup will feature more virtual events and to-go offerings.
Johnson also has aspirations to take Back to Black to other cities to spotlight more bartenders and raise wider awareness. She isn’t letting up because she believes there’s still a long way to go for the industry. While she recognizes the recent surge in interest and support of Black-owned restaurants, bars and businesses, she says it’s too soon to tell if it will last.
“As long as Black is on trend, there is no adequate way to see or gauge if anything has or will change. That’ll be very interesting to see, a year from now, if this is still the mood, the attitude, the trending topic. But I’m Black every day, so this is my life.”
Johnson shares that she’s dealt with discrimination in the industry, and says the most important steps she’s taken in her career have been to attain management positions so she can create a safe and equitable environment for herself and her staff.
“For me, changing the narrative was making sure that in every situation I could possibly be in, I was the last link on that chain,” she says. “That’s how I protect myself now because nobody will ever do those things to me again. And as best as I can help it [with] the people that work for me, nobody will ever do those things to them.”
That goal is the driving force behind the work she does: to ensure that anyone can reach management or ownership so they can build the kind of environment they want to work in.
“The advocacy is to make sure that if you want to get out of this, you can, and there’s a way to do that. And if you want to do this on your own, you can. If you want to recreate the culture, you can.”
This is part of DMV Black Restaurant Week’s mission: to provide education and resources that support access and pathways to ownership for Black hospitality professionals.
Johnson’s experience and expertise, as well as stories from colleagues, are the basis for a book she’s been working on since 2018 called “White Plates, Black Faces.” She hopes to shine a light on the inequity in the industry and chart a path to a better future.
The book is soon to be finding its way into the world, and Johnson says the timing couldn’t be better.
“I think people are ready to hear it now. They weren’t ready to hear it before.”
Connect with Johnson on Instagram @whiteplatesblackfaces. Learn more about DMV Black Restaurant Week at www.dmvbrw.com or on Instagram and Twitter @dmvbrw. Check out Back to Black on Instagram @backtoblack_popup. Visit Serenata in La Cosecha Market at 1280 4th St. NE, DC or learn more at www.serenatadc.com. Connect on Instagram @serenatadc.