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Mixologist and Social Justice Champion Aj Johnson Discusses Her Innovative Cocktail Pop Ups and How She Helped Launch DMV Black Restaurant Week This Fall

By Michael McCarthy | October 12, 2020 | Food & Drink

AJ Johnson is a partner and beverage director at Serenata.

Inertia isn’t in AJ Johnson’s DNA. Nary a strand. The tireless partner and beverage director at Serenata ( has been a fervent voice against racism in the restaurant industry. She launched Back to Black, a pop-up that mobilized DC’s Black bartenders and culinary pros for racial justice. She’s also the co-founder of DMV Black Restaurant Week (, Nov. 8 through 15. We sat down with the Bronx- born, Montgomery County- raised Johnson to discuss the past six months and how they’ve paved the way for change in the streets and in the places where we dine and sip.

Advocacy is a big part of your life; how has your amazing work in this arena informed your career?

First, the more resources you acquire should prompt your table to get wider and longer. Your wall should never get higher. The second, if I’m going, you’re coming with me. When I was in school, my mother always made a point to include extra payment whenever there was a field trip or school programming to ensure that everyone in my class could go. As an adult, I havealways tried to keep this same mentality in my work. I’ve been given opportunities to lead and resources to be successful. There are so many people who haven’tbeen afforded that and deserve a chance to be in the room and reach their full potential.

Please tell me a little about the creation of Back to Black—why did you launch these pop-ups?

They came to fruition out of a feeling of helplessness. The culmination of racial injustice and a global pandemic was taking its toll. The idea behind the pop-up was to express our frustration through our talents and activate in a way where we could make a difference. We held the first pop-up at Serenata and the second one at Roy Boys Shaw—and raised almost $20,000 [for racial justice]. The pop-ups will continue in November and December.

What spawned DMV Black Restaurant Week, and what can DC’s food-faithful expect this year?

It’s the brainchild of my business partner, Dr. Erinn Tucker. She [wanted] to create a platform that highlighted education, good food and culture within the DMV, with the goal of putting the spotlight on Black restaurateurs and hospitality workers and providing them with the resources necessary to succeed in the hospitality industry. This year, we’re looking to do virtual events, but make sure diners have a chance to support our restaurant partners and cheer on their favorite bartenders in our R.R. Bowie Cocktail Competition.

Photography by: Kir Tuben