As some of you know, I spent a lot of time working in restaurants over the years and that is where many people assume that I met AJ, but our history goes back way further than that, #GrowinUpDC!! I’ve always known she was destined for great things and am excited to share her awesome new venture!!
DCFunemployment: Tell the people – Who are you?
My name is Andra Johnson. Everybody has called me AJ since I was 7 years old. I work at Macon Bistro & Larder where I am currently the Beverage Director and “The Mayor of Magnolia”. This is in reference to our soon to debut club room and private dining space, The Magnolia Room. I am in charge of curating and creating the cocktail, wine, and beer menus for both spaces as well as cultivating, planning, and booking events for The Magnolia Room. You will definitely find me on the bar in The Magnolia Room once we are open in February, but I’ll still be floating around Macon making pairing suggestions and educating my staff (and guests) on all things beverage related.
A little about me: I was born in the Bronx but Maryland is definitely where I grew up. My family moved to Montgomery County when I was 11, and despite my resistance initially, I grew to love the area. I was always heavy into sports and that consumed much of my time in my youth. I attended Academy of the Holy Cross in 2001 and one of my best friends started working at Chili’s Bar & Grill on Rockville Pike. Despite the fact that I was playing on 2 basketball teams and had volleyball practice 3 times a week, I decided that I wanted a job too (mostly because I loved shoes and this way I didn’t have to go to my mom for everything that I wanted). I started out busing and hosting and before I knew it I had caught the restaurant bug. (DCF: I can vouch for AJ on this one, if you’ve never worked in restaurants you won’t get it but if you have you understand the draw!!)
In 2005 I attended Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but it really wasn’t the place for me and I missed home a lot. At that time, my mother had bought a house in Washington D.C. and I moved back in with her in 2007. I fell in love with D.C. immediately. I am definitely a city girl and D.C. has always had this really cool urban and artistic vibe that I naturally gravitated to. I began working at Mayorga Coffee Bar & Lounge in the Tivoli Theatre as the Assistant General Manager and was soon promoted to General Manager at the age of 19. From there, I moved onto Open City in Woodley Park where I was a floor manager for 3 years and then was promoted to Assistant General Manager of The Diner in Adams Morgan. (DCF: I interviewed with AJ for my bartending job at the diner, and got it! And then she left me there lol, but read on to discover why). I grew increasingly complacent with what I was doing at time. Fast casual dining was not my passion. After a year and a half I decided to reinvigorate my passion for the restaurant and D.C. and start over again-this time in a more elevated setting.
Fine dining was difficult to break into at first. It was hard with my tattoos. It was hard with my dreads. It was difficult transitioning into a setting where I had to carry a tray all of the time whereas in a fast casual place we always prided ourselves on how many drinks we could carry to a table in our hands (DCF: true!). I finally did get a break though and started working at 901 (now defunct) on F Street and that was truly an eye-opening experience. I was able to learn how to give the great service that I had always enjoyed receiving when I went out to great restaurants. From there I worked at several places including Le Diplomate by Stephen Starr, Eola, and Mussel Bar by Robert Weidmaier before I ended up taking the Assistant General Manager position at Macon Bistro & Larder.
DCF: What does being funemployed mean to you & what was your path to funemployment?
AJ: Funemployment is a great term to describe that feeling of being totally and completely satisfied with your job. For me, it took a while to get there, but once I regained confidence in my ability and focused myself on my goals I started to see opportunities popping up left and right. It is when you are excited to head into work every day. When you are being sought out because your talent has been passed on by word of mouth. And yes, when your job becomes part of your life. These all accurately describe being funemployed for me. I get a chance to showcase what I am good at and people pay for it. My path was never a straight line. I mean, for years I had thought (and so did everyone else probably) that I was going to play professional basketball and be in the WNBA. It was easy for me. Basketball was something that I have done for years and I was really good at it. But by my senior year of high school, I just got bored with it. I started to think about my college experience and being tied down to a university and their rules was not in my plan. I don’t like to follow the rules really. So I quit basketball my senior year of high school, despite the scholarship offers and focused more on my art and my writing. Those two things made me happy and regardless of how anyone else felt about my decision, I know that it was the best decision for me at the time. I use this as an example because this is exactly how I feel about deciding to get serious about the restaurant industry. I had moved on to Montgomery College in Rockville and had my heart set on transferring over to American University and possibly following my mother’s footsteps and becoming a lawyer. But as I got better and better in my job, I realized that restaurants is where I belonged. It is difficult and it is stressful and yes, people constantly look at you and say, “So what do you plan on doing after this?” But what no one understands is that THIS IS WHAT I DO. Throughout my career in restaurants I have tried to spend time focusing on how to make myself the best service professional possible. So that means spending time balancing trays, busing tables immaculately, timing courses properly, product knowledge of beers, wines, spirits, and food, spending countless hours in the mirror practicing opening champagne bottles without making a huge ‘pop’ sound. (Yes my bottle popping friends, the loud champagne pop you love on holiday is frowned on in fine dining!) Once I had all the pieces, marketing myself was easy and it genuinely made me fulfilled going into work every night. I am constantly growing, learning, expanding in my knowledge and my experience in this position and there is no greater reward in a job than that.
DCF: Who was your first cheerleader?
AJ: My first cheerleader was obviously my mother, Debra White. She never questioned me. She never doubted me. She never looked down on me for wanting to work in restaurants. In fact she is the one that encouraged me to focus on what makes me happy first, not what will make the big bucks. She always saw and appreciated my penchant for hospitality and service. She still gushes over it when she sends her friends my way or when she comes in to dine with her friends. She recognizes the hard work that I have put in and has been extremely instrumental in helping me to accomplish what I’ve always dreamed of having, which is my own place. Along the way, there was a list of other people who have really helped me continue to take steps in the right direction. My family has always been extremely supportive but I would not be here if it weren’t for Darlin Kulla who really pushed me to take wine more seriously and sharpen my service skills. Erin Galvin who made it a point to keep me focused and believed in my talent from the beginning. Gene Alexeyev who took me under his wing and gave me a chance to create and refine my palate.
DCF: What experiences in your life prepared you for where you are now?
AJ: This was a tough question. I mean, I’m a beverage professional. There’s not a whole lot of life experience that prepares you to drink copious amounts of alcohol every single day. However, I will say that being a leader and taking charge of situations has been a strong suit of mine. I love to lead. I’ve held management positions since I was 19 years old and I have learned how to properly navigate and oversee several teams of people in different settings. But being a leader isn’t about being bossy. It’s about doing the absolute best job you possibly can and being able to enhance your team through becoming a living example. Understanding what needs to get done instead of just passing by it and waiting for the problem to get worse. Taking full responsibility for your actions as the team leader and owning up to those mistakes. But most importantly, being caring and compassionate and listening to what people needs has made me (I think) a very effective manager. I did an internship at Jim Coleman Toyota when I was 17 and it was there where I truly understood what it meant to take charge and manage situations-especially bad ones. Jim was one of the most saavy people I have ever had the chance of meeting. He knew how to talk to customers and he knew how to keep his staff happy, yet productive. It was beautiful to watch and those two-three weeks at the dealership taught me all I needed to know about customer service.
DCF: Where do you get your inspiration and/or motivation?
AJ: I draw inspiration from history usually. I love working on themed projects or menus. They give me a chance to delve into the history of a cocktail or a specific spirit and then I can have fun with flavor combinations or come up with really funky names based on a really interesting story. I love history and I love to read about the great, and sometimes not so great, people that have shaped different nations. The wine list at Macon Bistro is completely French, which is very rare to see in a restaurant anywhere nowadays. I often get push back but that only means that I get to search and taste and search some more for wines that are fun and delicious from different regions of France that may not be as popular or commercialized in order to fit the market profile. Most of our Francophile guests are really so interested in some of the things I am bringing in and just being able to surprise them and talk to them about the wines is always a good time. The goal in anything that I do beverage wise is to entertain, educate, and excite. So really, the inspiration generally comes from asking myself, “How can I wow them this time?
DCF: What does balance mean to you and how do find balance?
AJ: Honestly, balance is not something that I have found for myself yet. My sleep patterns are crazy. I work 12-15 hours a day. I party hard. I try to find “AJ time” but it is really hard these days because I have to get work done on my days off lately. Balance doesn’t exist yet for me. I have always said that I am going to rip and run until I’m 40 and then I’m done. So for me the chaos is balance. It’s what I know. It’s what keeps me going. But in 12 years, no more running around restaurants and I’ll be able to have my investments work for me and I can focus on the business side and things that I love to do like writing, learning new languages, and traveling. At that point I guess I’ll have to recalibrate for a different, more “normal” balance.
DCF: What sacrifices did you have to make to get here?
AJ: The number one thing that I have sacrificed to get where I am is relationships. I don’t have a normal work schedule. I don’t know what a 9-5 is. I don’t ever really have time. So it’s been hard finding a keeper in all of this. I am a slave to the weekend, as we all are in this business, so not being able to be there for friends during their birthdays or spending time with my family on the holidays has always bothered me a bit. I have put my traveling plans on hold in order to focus on getting my career off the ground here in D.C. It has definitely paid off, but I keep telling myself to not keep putting off traveling in 2016 because by the end of the year I may be neck deep in another project. Sacrifices are necessary in order to be successful, but success does not mean you can’t ever be happy. Make time for you. Make time for your loved ones. Make time for your husband/wife. Make time for your children. Because the people standing with you are the most integral part of your success.
DCF: What struggles have you faced as a women in your industry?
AJ: Being a woman in any industry is tough. But being a young, tattooed, black lesbian in a management position in an upscale restaurant has been especially difficult at times. It takes a while for the clientele to get used to a 28 year old female helping them to make a wine selection. It is always funny talking to male guests about whiskey and scotch because not too many woman outside of this profession prefer those spirits to drink on a regular basis. I have to work twice as hard and study way more just to prove to people that I actually CAN answer your questions, whereas most male guests that ask male bartenders about something they only have to say, “yeah it’s good man”. I have learned some of the most amazing things from guys in this industry, but the one thing that I love about being a female beverage professional is that unlike most industries, the ladies stick together. Rachel Sergi really is one of those ladies that I look up to 100%. She is a champion and a bad ass behind the bar and most of my scotch knowledge, I learned from her. We make it happen and we always recognize talent and support. I am thankful for that and it has really helped me stay the course and not get discouraged when I got passed up for jobs when I was trying to establish myself in the industry.
DCF: What is the early advice you didn’t listen to that you wish you had?
AJ: That’s easy: My mother suggested that I take a year off before just heading out to college. I had just reignited the artist within and that I shouldn’t rush into school. Take a year, travel, figure out who you are so that you have a better chance at finding a school that fits you. I stubbornly ignored that because I was afraid that people would think I didn’t have grades good enough to get into college. I thought it was the next step. It was normal. My mother knew, and has always known, that I don’t do normal. Never have. And every time I’ve ever tried to do/be normal I have failed miserably. I work and live best being me and letting things matriculate naturally. (DCF: Preach!!! Stay weird my friend!!) Had I listened to my mother I would have focused more on getting my guild of sommelier certification or finishing my Cicerone training by 22 or 23 years old.
DCF: What was your greatest failure and what did you learn from it?
AJ: My biggest failure, I don’t believe has happened yet. I’ve fallen down so many times, but there has never been a time when I haven’t been able to pick myself back up–with a ton of help from others, obviously. Every time I fail though, I learn patience, not fear. That is very important. If every time you fell down when you learned how to ride a bike you became increasingly more scared to fall, then you would stop learning how to ride. But if you take the time to center yourself and learn from your mistakes you’ll learn how to be fearless and never forget how to ride a bike ever again.
DCF: What is your proudest moment?
AJ: My proudest moment was definitely transferring the investment money into The Magnolia Room and having the full backing and support of my family. It has been a long road but as I walked into the bank I knew it was my time and I have been dreaming about having a place to create and call my own for the past 2 years.
AJ: Currently I am diligently working 24/7 to get The Magnolia room up and running for Super Bowl! But it has been hard with a few setbacks. However, it has been a blast learning from Tony and being able to collaborate on this project. We have started a kickstarter project to get the neighbor excited about our new expansion. We love being engaged with our regulars and neighbors. Outside of Macon, I am working on learning Russian and Japanese and brushing up on my French, beginning my WSET training, and finally taking my Level II test in the Cicerone Beer Program.
You can always contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My personal Facebook name is Andra Lynn.