Andra “AJ” Johnson has become a fixture behind the bar of some of the best foodie spots in the District, as well as a strong advocate for diversity in dining. She currently runs the beverage program at Seranata, nestled in Latin American market La Cosecha near Union Market. The DMV Black Restaurant Week cofounder also curates conversations about representation through White Plates, Black Faces, which doubles as the name of a book she’s hard at work on. District Fray spoke with Johnson about what diversity looks like in restaurants navigating Covid-19, how Serenata has adapted to the changes and what her day-to-day looks like now.
District Fray: Serenata has been hosting virtual Zoom happy hours with kits available for purchase so people can follow along with you at home and recreate specific drinks. How have you adjusted to connecting with customers this way?
Andra “AJ” Johnson: It’s definitely [been] a little bit of a shock. I have a pretty big personality, and it’s really about trying to get that to shine through a computer screen instead of somebody sitting right in front of me. I’m trying to still do what we do and stay true to what we do, which is to put out great drinks with a little bit of history and a lot of culture. Trying to find a way to do that without having people in front of you is really difficult. But we’ve done well with keeping the mission of what we said we were going to do: Try to give people something new and different.
What has the reaction of participants in your classes been like so far?
We’re having fun, and [participants are doing] fun activities at home like cutting their own garnishes. It’s an inside look into how bartenders make your drink pretty and what goes into the physical makeup of the drink, and that reaction has been so cool. I go over shaking and stirring, and we’ve even talked about how ice is a big part of the drink. I think their excitement is really what fuels the energy all the way through.
On a larger scale, how have you been adjusting to your new circumstances on a professional level?
I’m one of the lucky ones. I am still employed. I go to work six days a week, six to eight hours a day. We’re doing food and cocktails to-go. We’re providing meals to World Central Kitchen. I still get full access to my bar so my day-to-day hasn’t changed much – except for the fact that there’s less prep and more to clean. It’s lonely for sure. It’s quiet. There’s not really anybody I can bounce my ideas off of. I miss my team a lot. They are the heart and soul of it all. Without them, it’s a little dull. I am just trying to figure out how to stay ahead of things. If and when we [re]open, what does my menu look like? What products am I going to be able to get? What products do I not have that I can’t offer anymore? How are we reworking the cocktails for the season? I’m thinking three months ahead with every single thing I’m doing now.
In addition to your work as a bartender, you cofounded DMV Black Restaurant Week and create dialogue through White Plates, Black Faces. How are black- and minority-owned spots specifically being affected right now?
There was a lot of work done in the past two or three years, especially regarding that conversation of the lack of diversity in the city with the efforts that I put forth with different groups. What we’ve done at this point seems to have been washed away, as of right now. I say that with a very, very, very heavy heart. But I think that it’s also two-fold in that the playing field is now level. Whatever you would do to support any business is what you should be doing to support your black- and minority-owned businesses.
What can be done by community members to support these businesses?
Check to see if they’re selling gift cards or doing fundraisers. One of the biggest helps has been understanding the resources that are available and open. If there are programs out there you think somebody would qualify for, send them a message and say, “Hey, I love you guys. I want to make sure you guys are doing okay. I heard about this program opening up. This could be an opportunity for you all.” One of the things we’ve seen is a lack of resources and communication hitting certain demographics and restaurants – namely restaurants with people of color. They’re not getting all of the access to the information they need in order to be successful. If there are resources, grants and programs out there, reach out. Outside of that? Buy, buy, buy – if you have the money to spend.
How has the immediate community supported Serenata?
Really trying to forge that connection and being that word of mouth to a restaurant is super helpful. The biggest marketing tool I’ve had is the people who have taken my class. We doubled our numbers from the very first to the second class [because] one couple told all their friends. [We went] from 15 to 30 people in that next class. It was super important and super helpful. As restaurants, we’ve always leaned on our customers, and I don’t think that changes right now. Customers are definitely taking on a bigger responsibility to try to help in that way as well. I don’t think that applies to one demographic or restaurant. It applies to all of them. Help them if you like them.
Johnson leads cocktail classes every Friday at 5 p.m. To attend, order a virtual cocktail class kit via www.serenatadc.com for pickup or delivery, and you’ll be provided with a Zoom link to access the live class.
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