DC’s Former “Night Mayor” Will Lead the Local Restaurant Association

Shawn Townsend is the new president and CEO of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington

Shawn Townsend is the new president and CEO of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington.

Shawn Townsend, DC’s first-ever director of the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture (aka the “Night Mayor”), has been tapped as next president and CEO of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. He starts mid-January.

Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed Townsend to her newly created Office of Nightlife and Culture in 2018, where he acted as a liaison between city government and the hospitality industry. He previously worked for the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, overseeing investigators who deal with complaints and inspections of bars, restaurants, and other alcohol-serving establishments. He also had experience helping run his father’s bar in South Carolina.

“Yes, I was behind the bar, I was in the kitchen, I was ordering food, cutting checks, and all that good stuff. So, I can remember trying to figure out how to make it through the next month,” Townsend says. “I’ve always respected restaurant owners for the number of responsibilities that they have in order to maintain the operations. It’s not easy.”

During his tenure as “Night Mayor,” Townsend worked with a commission of community leaders to produce the first-ever report on the $7-billion economic impact of DC’s nightlife industry. He helped make go-go the “official music of DC.” Most notably, though, he acted as a bridge between the Mayor’s Office and restaurants during pandemic shutdowns and mandates.

Former RAMW president Kathy Hollinger described his role to the Washington Post as “one-part therapist, one-part punching bag,” adding that “he really is a crucial part of the comeback.”

Townsend left the role in the summer of 2021 to take a position with political consulting firm Dewey Square Group, where he led the state and local affairs and “multicultural strategies” teams. He also married Symone Sanders, Kamala Harris’s former senior advisor and spokesperson, who now hosts her own show on MSNBC.

Townsend replaces Hollinger after her decade run at the association. She left the group at the start of October to oversee Greater Washington Partnership, a civic alliance of regional business leaders.

Townsend joins the organization at a time of huge change for the industry. Many restaurants are still recovering from the pandemic and are now rethinking their business models in the wake of Initiative 82, which will phase out DC’s “tip credit” system used to subsidize wages with gratuities. RAMW was one of the biggest opponents of Initiative 82, which passed with 74-percent of the vote in the November election.

Initiative 82 will be the “number one issue” for Townsend stepping into his new role: “No one wants to see restaurants leave for Maryland or Virginia, or the region for that matter. Those are definitely conversations I’m looking forward to having with our friends in the Wilson Building.”

Another priority, Townsend says, is figuring out how RAMW can assist with the worker shortage and workforce development, after many left the industry amid the pandemic. He also wants to expand RAMW’s membership and make it more diverse and inclusive.

“There are lots of people of color that are operators that are not members of RAMW. I believe that it could be mutually beneficial if they were members,” Townsend says. “I know it was a priority for Kathy—and it should continue to be, whether it’s me or anyone else coming after me.”

This story has been updated with comment from Townsend. 

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.