Not everyone’s palate is the same. That may sound obvious, but a hospitality world that was built to serve a white, primarily male audience often ignores the simple truth. Zoom all the way in, and the statement is one way to understand Empowering the Diner, a virtual event series that two Black, female bar professionals recently announced in D.C. Sommelier Erica Christian and bartender Kapri Robinson want to equip BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) customers with eating and drinking expertise that will boost their confidence and give them to the tools to maximize their enjoyment in bars and restaurants.
For example, if a sommelier compares the flavor of wine to an apricot, that note might not apply to everyone in the room. But if the customer comes ready with their own comparison, say the type of tart raspberry found around Buffalo, New York, they’ll be in a better position to find something they like. If a bartender stereotypes a Black customer by automatically recommending a sweet riesling, or assuming they have no interest in whiskey, an empowered diner will be better prepared to respond with an explanation of their preferences.
“This is about owning what you like and owning what you know. You only can taste what you’ve tasted,” says Christian, the founder and executive director who has worked for natural wine shop Domestique and fawned-over D.C. restaurants like Tail Up Goat, short-lived Emilie’s, and Thamee. “If you’ve never had apricot, I’m not going to be able to develop that in your brain. Empowerment really comes from people being able to access what they already know. We don’t want to give people wine language. We want to help them to use their own language.”
The first series, which takes place over four Friday night sessions starting May 21, is called Empowering the Diner Through Wine. The sessions, which all include a wine tasting, include “What you want, baby we got it,” an event that offers an introduction to winemaking and wine tasting; “Somm don’t kill my vibe,” which talks about how to identify individual preferences; “Why see the world when you’ve got wine,” which explains what information customers should seek out before buying; and a wrap-up and celebratory event titled “Ain’t no stoppin’ the Prosecco from poppin.” All four will be conducted on a virtual events platform called Hopin.
Empowering the Diner offers two tiers of tickets, both of which come with four bottles of sustainably farmed wine (one white, one red, one sparkling, and one skin-contact), an accompanying zine designed by Christian, and pairing recipes that partnered chefs produced specifically after tasting each individual wine. All-access tickets are $110, and “For Us By Us” tickets — offered on the honor system to BIPOC customers — cost $80.
To augment the conversation, Christian and Robinson brought in experts from all over the country to speak to wine and food. The recipe developers are D.C. chef and caterer LaGina Lewis of 2Top Foods, Baltimore artist and palatePalette editor-in-chief Krystal Mack, Bay Area chef Joseph L. Paire III, and Cassidy Lewis, the Brooklyn baker by way of New Orleans behind Bumble Bee’s Pastrys. The other speakers are Amanda Carpenter, the service and beverage Director at nationally known Filipino restaurant Bad Saint in D.C.; award-winning wine writer and Black Wine Professionals founder Julia Coney; Justin Trabue, a D.C. native who has studied winemaking and is transitioning into a job at Heitz Cellars in California; and Lindsay Williams, the founder of South LA Wine Club.
Christian and Robinson identified all the speakers in part because their work had already shown the same mission as Empowering the Diner’s: dismantling a colonizer-led perspective in bars and restaurants.
“In the simplest terms, what is mainstream is white,” says Robinson, the director of operations for the series who also founded Chocolate City’s Best as a competition and educational hub for bartenders of color. “The people that colonized the world and put themselves as leaders put only their perspective forward for you to learn and abide by. These perspectives continuously leave out a multitude of other perspectives.”
Christian has been working to build Empower the Diner for over a year, drawing on experiences she ran into while working at restaurants that she says didn’t want to hear her out when she was advocating for herself and her coworkers. “I’m a pain in the ass,” she says. “I would sit down and I’m having conversations with my manager until 1 and 2 a.m. I’m like, ‘Y’all need to understand this.’ That was a lot of labor, unpaid labor.” She says she brought the idea for the series to previous managers but found little support or advice other than to start thinking about a budget.
Although the name of the series references diners, Christian says “the audience truly is everyone.” Empower the Diner is meant to teach BIPOC customers how to best wield their purchasing power, but workers on the other side of the bar can learn from that perspective, too. The series is built around inclusivity, but it is not a form of diversity and inclusion training. If restaurant owners and managers aren’t ready to acknowledge how systemic racism is baked into their business, they shouldn’t show up expecting a debate.
“This isn’t a callout,” Christian says. “It’s a call-in.”
Empowering the Diner tickets are available here. The number of tickets that come with wine pairings is limited.