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A Mover and a Cocktail Shaker

As the founder of the Chocolate City’s Best cocktail competition, D.C.-based bartender Kapri Robinson is opening doors for hospitality workers of color

Though she’s working hard to tear down inequity in the hospitality industry, D.C.-based bartender Kapri Robinson considers herself a builder. “If you’re creating something of your own [that] is naturally dismantling what you see is wrong, it’s taking away the energy of constantly shouting at a wall of white supremacy, racism, sexism, ageism — all of the -isms,” the 28-year-old says. “Instead of just constantly yelling at that wall, create something that just naturally breaks it down.”

Chocolate City’s Best, a cocktail competition for bar professionals of color that Robinson founded three years ago, has grown into an educational hub and platform for mentorship, camaraderie, and connection. With Empowering the Diner, an event series she recently co-founded with sommelier Erica Christian, she’s advocating for customers and workers of color to create a more inclusive experience in bars and restaurants. And her work as an organizer for Back to Black’s pop-ups and partnerships helps raise money for causes that give back to Black communities while constructing a written record of past and present contributions Black people have made to eating and drinking culture at large. For Robinson, it all adds up to a schedule full of virtual meetings and committee calls that dominate most of her nights, but she says the prospect of finally getting back behind the bar gives her joy: “If you don’t do anything that gives you joy, you’re going to burn out.”

Robinson is about to start a job on the bar team reopening Allegory, the ambitious cocktail bar inside the Eaton hotel in downtown D.C. As the country begins to emerge from the pandemic, she’s looking forward to wowing customers with her craft and carrying a torch for a standard of hospitality that QR codes can’t deliver.

Eater: How are you making change in the food world?

Kapri Robinson: I believe I’m making change in the food world by confronting topics that are hard to talk about, getting people to talk about them, and getting people to think of ways that we can change in the industry. I’m not speaking for everyone, but for some people of color and Black people, there’s an intimidation factor going out to eat, especially in fine dining. One of my goals is to break that wall down so more communication can happen and people can feel more welcomed where they are, wherever they want to go eat.

I help create doors and opportunities in the educational field for people of color and Black people in the industry. This is a very huge point for me. Chocolate City’s Best is working on a scholarship effort right now. We’re also working with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust on pushing a group of BIPOC leaders through their educator course. Hopefully we get to grow that and take that nationwide, which is going to be a really awesome effort, probably you’ll see in the next year or so. Those two things are really huge for me. Empowering guests of color and also empowering industry members of color to just go for their passions, communicate what they want, and not be intimidated anymore by the Euro-led, colonizer-led lens that’s on our industry at the moment.

When did you know you wanted to plan a competition specifically for Black bartenders and bartenders of color?

I knew for a fact that I wanted to do that at the 2017 Tales of the Cocktail conference. And it started off as, “How do I see more people like me in these areas?” I reflected on my career up until that point and asked myself, “What has helped me grow?” The answer was competitions. The thing about competitions is you can find camaraderie there, awesome peers to help you grow. The networking, the knowledge learned, the opportunities gained just by being a part of a competition, really, I saw all of that, and I saw how all of it just added to my career growth. And winning, of course, helps a lot, too. I wanted to create a competition, one for Black people and people of color, because I wanted to highlight them, get them in the forefront, and get them on the national stage. But also because I believe the way we do our competition is like no other.

We really focus on education, mentorship, connecting people to brands and mentors. We also focus on camaraderie. We want them to come together. We want them to talk to each other after this competition and create that family. We give a lot of grace with ours. We give a lot of explanations. We give a lot of help. We try to do as much as we can so the bartenders are not coming out of pocket for anything. We really think about our competitors a lot, and I think that shows before, through, and after the competition.

How does your work with Back to Black and diving into the storytelling part of it fit into your mission?

Not only are we telling the story of the bartenders themselves, but raising the money that goes directly to charities that specifically help Black communities is huge. Constantly collecting the stories is something we need to do so we are no longer void of stories of Black people in this industry — what they do, their growth, and how they’ve contributed to the industry. We’re going to need all those stories in 50 years’ time. Not only are we telling our stories, but we’re also telling past stories. It’s necessary for generations after us.

A woman mixes a cocktail at a bar
A woman, depicted from the neck down, places a lemon twist in a cocktail glass

What’s your favorite part about being behind the bar?

The energy. It is the energy with your team, the energy you’re creating with the guest, being in the swing — I wouldn’t necessarily say being in the weeds, because, honestly, being in the weeds is kind of annoying, but being in the swing. I know where everything is, my mise en place, and it’s like a seamless moving. That’s fun for me.

I’m definitely missing people. I’m ready to hear about people’s lives again so I don’t have to think about mine too much. Let’s talk.

What do you hope to accomplish in this next year?

I want to help put Allegory on the map with my bar team. I’m not in charge of it; we’re collaborative. I’m going to be putting a lot of time into helping create a bar program that is very meaningful, impactful, and a lot of fun.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to do work that’s similar to what you’re doing?

My advice would be to make sure what you’re doing is not beating you back up. If it’s advocacy work, if it is behind your bar, if it’s on social media, or you’re creating a platform, go the route of creating instead of just pointing the problems out. Create not just the solutions but the doors to the solutions, the steps to the solutions. It doesn’t have to be the whole thing, but maybe it’s a piece of the puzzle of what you see is wrong. Create something that’s either dismantling what’s wrong or is building it up so someone else can dismantle it.

The constant callout without actually trying to create anything is a burnout, too. It’s triggering. It’s emotionally and mentally draining. So try to do something that’s going to recharge you at the same time if possible.

Lots of people want to speak out now, and I love that. I think it’s needed. We have to do that. But also we have to remember that speaking out takes a toll on us. If you’re not doing anything that seems rewarding, you’re just going to want to stop. I’ve seen it to the point where people don’t want to be in the industry anymore. I don’t want people to have that feeling. There is more than one avenue in this industry.

How can readers support your work?

People can go to Chocolate City’s Best. We have many projects in the near future that will impact Black and brown lives in the industry. They can also make their way to Empowering the Diner to purchase tickets for our virtual event series Empowering the Diner Through Wine. This is where I’ll be having tough conversations about the state of the industry and what we can do to dismantle harmful practices and then grow anew.

Rey Lopez is a food, portrait, and architectural photographer and head photographer for Eater DC.

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