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a bar napkin with “B * A * R*” written on it, surrounded with some loose mixed nuts Eater

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Stirring for Equity

D.C. bartenders are using the tools of their trade to advocate for social justice in the hospitality industry — and society at large

Around 6 p.m. on a Wednesday night in September, two women wearing cloth face masks stood inside the Gibson cocktail lounge in Washington, D.C., and discussed the finer points of bartending. Jewel Murray, the general manager at the speakeasy-style bar just off U Street NW, talked about how to set up an efficient workstation. She demonstrated how putting her hands on her hips and flaring out her elbows creates a space for a coworker to wiggle by behind her. She weighed the merits of leather aprons for mixologists drawn to Prohibition-era imagery (good if you carry a lot of tools, but a pain in the neck to clean). Allison Lane listened intently, absorbing information while nodding her head, asking questions, and bouncing in step to a backbeat as Gil Scott-Heron rapped “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” over the bar’s sound system. Over a couple hours, several parties trickled through the unmarked door and the unlit foyer, but none of them were allowed to sit at the bar, because D.C.’s public health order prohibits serving drinks across a countertop. At one point, Lane turned to her trainer for the night and adopted a flat, reassuring tone. “I know nothing,” she said, reinforcing the purpose of the exercise.

Over the past four months, Lane has become a local leader in the social justice movement that surged across the United States in response to George Floyd’s death under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Back in June, she founded a nonprofit called Bartenders Against Racism (BAR), riding a wave of social media momentum that crested when she live-tweeted her experiences during a night when police stranded protesters inside the house of a sympathetic stranger on Swann Street NW. Lane, who is Black, and Murray, who is white, are both on the leadership board. During the protests, Lane has shed tears induced by both tear gas and by overwhelming emotions. Months later, she is spending less time supporting protesters and more time thinking about how the leadership board at BAR can bring about systemic change.

By devoting a night to drilling as a barback, Lane was conducting research for building a paid, equitable training program the nonprofit will organize for bartenders of color and other marginalized communities whose professional development may go ignored by employers. After shadowing Murray, she headed to an office on a different floor of the bar to type up her observations as a test trainee and analyze Murray’s night as a prospective mentor. Every week since, she has returned to the Gibson for sessions geared toward topics like classic cocktails and menu creation, budgeting and pricing, floor management, and service training. The goal was to offer a six-week training program in the spring, but an announcement the Gibson’s owners made the day before Lane’s first session put that plan in jeopardy. The speakeasy and six of its sister bars will close indefinitely on Halloween.

While the country’s drawn-out COVID-19 crisis has created a fertile environment for reevaluating norms across the bar and restaurant industry, Lane is one of several hospitality workers who are using their platforms to drive change in a profession — and a society at large — where they say opportunities for people of color are stifled at every rung of the ladder.

Three Black bar workers who spoke with Eater shared their experiences in an industry they say breeds hostility against them by locking them into entry-level positions, withholding training opportunities, tokenizing them for their cultural currency, and enforcing a code of “professionalism” they view as a double standard. While America has changed the way it drinks during the pandemic, the service workers risking their health for barely livable wages are fed up with business as usual. Periods of unemployment and momentum from America’s so-called reckoning have further empowered them to speak out.

While white-collar D.C. adjusts to a remote worklife, Lane has weathered the shock of unemployment and faced the health risks of returning to her jobs to serve drinks. The most significant action she feels she can take now is to build a training program from scratch.

In September, that meant listening to Murray walk her through the steps of making a $14 cocktail full of tequila, lime maple shrub, berry liqueur, and ginger beer. When Murray placed the drink on a table next to an order of pickled beets, she set a small fire in the center of a lime garnish and included instructions for the customer to remove their mask before trying to blow out the flame.

Allison Lane pours a cocktail at the Gibson
Allison Lane pours a cocktail at the Gibson

When Lane and her colleagues first started BAR back in June, they focused on what they termed “supplytending” — handing out food and water at protests, or pointing demonstrators toward restaurants that had opened up their bathrooms. The BAR board noticed that their volunteers were mostly in their 30s, and the demonstrators they helped were a generation younger. While the 20-somethings could figure out how to stay hydrated, they would need mentors when it was time to get back behind the bar. All the marching, chanting, and sign-holding will not fix a systemic imbalance between white and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) workers in an American hospitality culture that traces its origins through 400 years of oppression in America.

Lane, 34, knew from her own experience how difficult it could be for a Black person to rise through the ranks in the restaurant world. She grew up outside of D.C., in Manassas, Virginia, which she describes as “a very white community.” Since moving to the District in 2012, she’s logged enough experience — at scene-y Eighteenth Street Lounge, at U Street bars like Marvin and the Gibson, at packed restaurants like Kapnos, Ghibellina, and Compass Rose — to learn that she should hold more than one job at a time. That gives her options in case managers aren’t treating her well.

“I don’t trust this industry,” Lane says. “When I get hired for jobs, I’m not committed to you until I see you’re a good manager.”

Over the course of her career, she says she often showed up to a new job and was expected to perform without being trained. She’s been told she was “glaring” when she was simply thinking with a blank expression on her face. She says supervisors were often more concerned with enforcing a code of “professionalism” than they were about answering her questions. She felt there was always a different standard for her than for her white, male coworkers. “I often felt like a child,” Lane says. “It felt like I was being punished for having adult thoughts or being angry.

“I think some people are allowed to have bad days at work, aren’t they? Why can’t I? … Why does that dictate why I’m employable or not? It seems so unfair. That hasn’t happened to me a lot now, but it happened to me a lot back then. How can that be if this white guy over here is just saying wild shit all the time?”

Conversations with Lane reveal a winning personality honed by years of reading customers. She makes self-deprecating jokes and brims with laughter. She talks about how much she loves food and drinks, and how she uses that as common ground to get to know coworkers. Her Twitter account is a mix of unvarnished pain, stream-of-consciousness thoughts about the benefits of therapy, and wanton cravings for Taco Bell. She doesn’t pretend to know how to fix the hospitality industry, but she’s going to try.

Lane says the same confidence and people skills that have helped her land jobs have made her seem intimidating to managers. She says they may want to hire someone “cool or sassy or fun” to work at a bar, but often leave new hires to figure out the technical aspects of the job on their own.

“Oftentimes I’ve gone into places and people think I’m some sort of Black oracle, like I know how to bartend already,” Lane says. “Just because I’m confident doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing. It means I’ll figure it out, which is fantastic. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t train me the same way as somebody you assume is trainable.”

Allison Lane surveys the scene at a vigil for civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis at Black Lives Matter Plaza in July
Allison Lane surveys the scene at a vigil for civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis at Black Lives Matter Plaza in July
Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images

As in the world of rarefied chefs, the path to a job as a mixologist often includes a stint as a “stagiaire,” a fancy term for an unpaid worker. A willingness to learn is often attached to an acceptance to forego pay.

High-end bars “ask people to work for free,” Lane says. “They kind of tear you down a little bit — actually, a lot. Like, ‘Oh, give up all of this for yourself for free, and learn, and try to get a job at the same time.’ That’s not okay.”

In August, four bars agreed to send a portion of proceeds from cocktails sponsored by a new distillery out of Frederick, Maryland, to support BAR’s first fundraising initiative. BAR is raising money to pay for training stipends and more supply-tending, including a plan to pass out food and water at polling places on Election Day.

Before the pandemic forced D.C. bars to temporarily close dining rooms, Lane was juggling bartending and server jobs at the Eaton hotel downtown, the bar at the Anthem music venue in Southwest, and Cranes, a high-end Spanish-Japanese restaurant in Penn Quarter. She was laid off from the hotel job in June and still stays in contact with employers from the other two venues.

Now she spends most of her time serving at Electric Cool-Aid, a new outdoor bar in Shaw that specializes in frozen cocktails. Lane likes her new job. The owners have been bar managers around town for years, and they understand the stressful nature of the work. It’s outside, which makes Lane feel safe. As always, Lane says, some customers are more entitled than others while navigating the safety protocols D.C. requires during the public health crisis. She has friends who have been insulted and demeaned for asking customers to wear a mask.

“People’s classism shows, but there’s an extra weight to it when my life is in danger,” she says. “And I have to work. Our government is not taking care of us. Our city is not taking care of us. Our employers are not taking care of us.”

When Lane waits on customers now, she can’t read their faces behind their masks, so she can’t steel herself for anticipated rudeness. It’s a tradeoff she’s willing to make.

“I’d rather you wear your mask and not see your face and assume that you’re still respecting me as a person,” she says.

Serenata partner Andra “AJ” Johnson poses for a portrait with a drink in her hand.
Serenata partner Andra “AJ” Johnson founded the Back to Black pop-up, giving D.C. bartenders a platform to express their thoughts on race and identity while showing solidarity with the social justice movement.
Rey Lopez/For Serenata

Compared to an oncologist, say, or the demonstrators who still fill up Black Lives Matter Plaza with raised fists and raised voices, Andra “AJ” Johnson sometimes feels her work behind the bar at Serenata and Zumo is unimportant.

“Me putting a base spirit into a shaker tin and shaking it with some ice and some sugar and some citrus — my job is frivolous, right? But it doesn’t have to be,” Johnson says.

As a partner and beverage director at the day-to-night space at the center of the Latin-focused La Cosecha market in Northeast D.C., Johnson kept working when much of the city shut down in mid-March, operating as one half of a two-woman team sending out to-go smoothies full of tropical mamey fruit during the day and spicy pineapple-nopal margaritas at night. She led weekly cocktail classes, broadcasting her broad smile and warm personality through Zoom, and helped the bar participate as a pickup point for other pop-ups.

In June, while the outrage and pain that convulsed the country following Floyd’s death was still fresh, Johnson resolved to start her own pop-up, one that would use the tools of her trade to amplify the message of the activists and the protesters arguing that the color of their skin should not put their lives at risk. She called the idea Madiba Cocktail Pop-Up, then settled on a name that felt more powerful: Back to Black.

“I’m Black first, before I’m anything,” says Johnson, who was already a prominent voice for equality in the hospitality industry and is one of the organizers behind DMV Black Restaurant Week. “When my safety, my livelihood, the livelihood of my people is compromised, there’s no way that I could sit back and do nothing.”

Johnson, 33, would ask Black mixologists from bars across the city to join her in creating cocktails, then picking an anti-racist organization to receive proceeds from each drink. Each bartender would also be considered a storyteller, not just making high-level to-go drinks that showed off the diversity within the Black community, but also providing personal essays collected in a printed booklet. She enlisted photographer Naku Mayo to give each beverage a gorgeous portrait that would resonate on social media. Christina Mayo came on as a videographer.

Kapri Robinson was one of the first people Johnson called. Robinson gathers Black bartenders for competitions and developmental panels under the banner of a nonprofit called Chocolate City’s Best. She had been furloughed from her regular gig at Reliable Tavern, a neighborhood bar in Petworth with a hardware-store motif, and laid off from an exciting part-time gig at Allegory inside the Eaton hotel before she could even begin training. Because she has asthma, Robinson says she opted to be “very vocal online” rather than protest in the streets.

When Johnson reached out, Robinson felt like the universe had provided an answer to all her uncertainty about how to meet the moment of change. She feels the opportunity to be a storyteller is cathartic.

“Whatever you want to scream to the world about being Black, say it here,” says Robinson, who has since returned to Reliable Tavern for the Friday shift.

Johnson brought in three more storytellers — Frank Mills, the beverage director at fried chicken and oyster bar Roy Boys; Thamee beverage director Richard Sterling; and pastry chef Paola Velez, who co-founded Bakers Against Racism. The first Back to Black pop-up, held at Serenata over two days at the end of June, brought in $11,432.47 in donations for five charities. That included $2,000 worth of merchandise bearing a logo created by graphic designer Lorena Prada. The mixologists moved 450 cocktails, and the pop-up sold 140 black velvet brownies with chocolate-tinted cream cheese from Velez.

Roy Boys hosted a second iteration of Back to Black in August, and another installment is planned for November. Columbia Room, one of the most esteemed cocktail bars in the city, committed to sell cocktails crafted by Johnson and Sterling through the month of October, with proceeds going to Campaign Zero. After orchestrating the first pop-up herself, Johnson has made other members of the opening lineup organizers, too.

“It’s never going away,” Robinson says.

A portrait for Kapri Robinson
Kapri Robinson is a storyteller and mixologist for Back to Black and the president of Chocolate City’s Best
Back to Black [official]

For her first contribution to Back to Black, Robinson named her drink after Emeline Jones, a renowned chef in the late 1800s who was born to an enslaved woman in Baltimore and went on to run restaurants in New York and Virginia. As a free woman, she declined job offers to cook at the White House. Robinson’s Emeline — a mix of Dominican Brugal Anejo rum, red pea honey, African ginger syrup, lemon, and hibiscus-infused drops of Jamaican rum — was a tribute to that boss spirit. She sent the proceeds to Stop Police Terror Project DC.

For the past two years, Robinson and her partners at Chocolate City’s Best have grown the cocktail competition into an advocacy and development organization with a national reach. Robinson, 27, felt she had to start a competition for Black bartenders because she had traveled to the Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans and noticed that faces that looked like hers were conspicuously absent. Once she started putting on events, she heard familiar stories from Black workers: the one about being hired to barback but not getting opportunities to train as a bartender; the one about being told you’ll never get the bartending job you covet; the one about training a white coworker only to see them promoted ahead of you with fewer skills.

When Robinson finally got a chance to train as a bartender for herself, at Farmers Fishers Bakers on the Georgetown Waterfront, she says she showed up late one time and had a manager threaten to take away the opportunity. She says Torrance Swain, a Black mentor for her in the bar business, had to vouch for her and volunteer to be responsible for her so she could continue training as a bartender. She says she loves the bar team at the company — one of D.C.’s largest — and was part of a diverse group, but she felt like she had to do modified work to earn her position, like passing certifications on the first try, or memorizing cocktail recipes by a certain date.

“Because of that one mistake, I was never late again,” Robinson says. “I’ve never seen anyone else punished that way.”

Dan Simons, a co-owner of Farmers Restaurant Group, says in an email that the company applauds Robinson’s work on behalf of Black bartenders and pledged to personally review the situation with her and Swain. This year the Farmers group organized a paid group of advisers, called its Council on Color, to review diversity and inclusion in quarterly meetings.

“Our training programs are rigorous and intense, and we should be applying a high standard regarding knowledge, skills, and timeliness to everyone equally,” Simons writes. “No one should ever be managed, [led], or treated differently because of their race. I’m hearing Kapri, I’m believing Kapri. I am both sorry and responsible for how she was treated.”

Robinson says over the course of her career, including a stint at the edgy Dirty Habit bar in a Kimpton hotel, managers were more concerned with stopping her from “talking back” than listening to feedback about what her team needed. She’s felt like she was being labeled as “the angry black woman” or a constant complainer when she was trying to foster a better work environment.

“It feels like they want me to feel crazy,” Robinson says. “You want me to feel insane because you’re trying to impose your reality of me on me.”

In Robinson’s experience, when managers approach Black employees like they’re hostile, like they’ll automatically react in a loud, aggressive way, that leads to aggravation, then dejection.

“It creates frustration, but it also creates a sense of hopelessness, almost, in which I feel as though there is no point to be doing this. … I fight that feeling all the time, because someone has to say something, is what I believe. What we see all the time in this industry is that people of color, Black women, do not continue to keep talking. They shut their mouths. They keep their eyes down and do what they need to do to keep a job.”

Johnson has become a collector of these stories. For the past three years, she has been working on a book project and video series called White Plates, Black Faces that represents the range of experiences for Black restaurant workers, explores the factors that contribute to a lack of ownership opportunities and media representation, and looks at how the hospitality industry participates in institutional racism as a whole. She wants to share other people’s stories in her book, and she’s been conducting interviews with Black workers who work in restaurants ranging from fast casual to fine dining.

“A lot of people have not had the opportunity, simply because of the color of their skin and the lack of support and resources in order to speak against the injustices of their job in an industry that they love,” Johnson says. “We do this because we love it, and we’re not allowed to flourish and be nourished and enriched in our jobs because of the color of our skin, because of the preconceived notions of Black people, or people of color, period. That is — it’s heartbreaking at the end of the day, and it’s not fair.”

Johnson doesn’t feel like she ran into as many obstacles as many of the people she’s interviewed.

“I am, for lack of better words, and I hate this term, I am, ‘well-spoken.’ I grew up in a very great neighborhood, come from an affluent family,” she says. “I’m queer, where in a lot of situations for me, that was actually a plus in a hiring situation. Not all of them, but it definitely didn’t hurt me in a way that I think has hurt a lot of other people. I was the cool hire. I had a lot of doors open for me in that way. I got a lot of chances out the gate that I don’t think a lot of people did.”

Even so, Johnson says “fine dining didn’t want to see somebody like me.” She was once asked in a job interview, “Can you do something with that?” She needed a minute to realize the question was about her dreadlocks. She was asked by a manager, in the middle of service, to dance in the dining room. She’s been told she wasn’t dressing feminine enough. She’s had customers insinuate what type of food she likes, and interactions with people who didn’t believe she was a manager, let alone had an ownership stake.

“It’s all-encompassing. But at the end of the day, like, I do this because I love this. I think being a Black person in America, you end up going, ‘Welp, there’s nothing else that I can do about it, so I’m going to take it, and I’m going to learn how to control my temper, and I’m going to move on. I’m going to move on.’ And that is not, it’s not healthy mentally. And it gets a lot of people down, myself included. I don’t think that there are too many people of color in any job, let alone the restaurant industry, that have not been expected to perform to someone else’s preconceived notions of them.”