The city of Oakland claims the owner of a wildly popular but scandal-ridden restaurant that closed in May violated a local minimum wage law and owes its former employees money.
Oakland’s Department of Workplace and Employment Standards alleges that Hi Felicia owes some of its former employees $105,555 in service charges that were meant to be kept by specific workers but were instead shared among the restaurant’s entire staff. The service charges were charged to customers between April 2022 and May 2023, according to a letter Oakland sent to the owner, Imana Ewart, who goes by her first name. The San Francisco Chronicle first reported this story.
Oakland reviewed the restaurant’s service charge policy, employee and employer testimony, and other records for its investigation. The city determined that Hi Felicia used half of the service charges to supplement higher hourly wages for all employees. Under Oakland’s Minimum Wage and Sick Leave Ordinance, all service charges must be turned over to the workers serving customers. None of these kinds of charges are allowed to be paid to supervisors unless they’re also doing service work.
The Workplace and Employment Standards Department has ordered Hi Felicia to pay the remaining half of the service charges to its former employees.
Imana told The Oaklandside on Wednesday that she had not been aware of this requirement under Oakland’s law. She said she split the service charge to increase the pay for other workers in the restaurant who earned less money than the servers. Imana said employees were paid between $20-$45 an hour in base pay, plus tips and the money collected from the service charge pool. Managers received a portion of the service charges, but did not get tips. Imana claims a former staff member who made $45 an hour filed the complaint against the restaurant, although she declined to name the person.
“I was genuinely trying to do my best to pay people as much as I could,” Imana said, adding that of the roughly $1 million in revenue her restaurant earned during its existence, she spent $743,000 on labor.
After speaking to The Oaklandside, Imana posted on Instagram that Hi Felicia earned roughly $200,000 in service charge fees over the course of the restaurant’s existence and that every dollar was distributed to employees.
“To know that I could have saved almost $100 an hour, for each hour that Hi Felicia was open, had I not paid everyone above minimum wage, is infuriating,” she said in the post.
When Hi Felicia first opened reservations quickly filled up for the $120 tasting menu, and it was later added to the Michelin guide for the Bay Area. Hi Felicia shut down in May following a burglary. A couple of weeks later, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Oakland’s Department of Workplace Employment Standards was investigating a complaint that it had violated the city’s minimum wage law. The story also noted that former workers had filed three wage claims against the restaurant with the California Department of Industrial Relations. The story also included allegations from former workers that their checks had bounced, and that Imana had sexually harassed staff. Imana objected to some claims while also apologizing to individuals who felt harmed by her actions.
Imana said she intends to appeal the department’s decision.