Washington, D.C.’s fine-dining hotspot Swahili Village, also called “The Consulate,”was sued on Wednesday by district officials who allege the power broker restaurant paid hundreds of workers as little as $5 an hour and stole their tips.
It bills itself as a high-end meeting place for diplomats and foreign dignitaries, according to a lawsuit from the District of Columbia’s attorney general. The restaurant is the only Black-owned fine dining establishments in the nation’s capital.
But, according to the suit, that high-end status didn’t stop Kevin Onyona and Emad Shoeb, two experienced restaurateurs who operate and control the venue, from allegedly committing wage theft.
“Behind high prices and high-end cuisine is a grim reality: For years, Swahili Village DC has profited by stealing from its own employees, including the servers, hosts, food runners, bussers and bartenders who made the Restaurant successful,” the complaint said.
Both Onyona and Shoeb are co-defendants in the lawsuit.
The executives are accused of regularly pocketing worker tips, refused to provide overtime pay for employees who worked more than 40 hours a week and never provided paid sick leave. When the restaurant did pay its workers, it allegedly doled out far below the District’s minimum wage.
Following a tip, the attorney general’s office spoke to more than a dozen Swahili Village employees during a lengthy pre-suit investigation.
The lawsuit claims that Onyona and Shoeb kept no regular payroll records, which kept their employees in the dark about how their pay was calculated and what was being deducted. Some employees allegedly clocked over 60 hours of work per week without earning overtime, which by law must be 1.5 times the regular rate. And Onyona and Shoeb allegedly never gave their employees any paid sick leave, while also reprimanding them for missing work due to illness.
Reached for comment, Onyona said he had not had a chance to meet with his attorney and prepare for his legal defense, and would have no comment until then.
Plaintiff the District of Columbia (“District”), through the Office of the Attorney General,
brings this enforcement action against Defendants Swahili Village M Street, LLC (“Swahili
Village DC” or the “Restaurant”), Kevin Onyona, and Emad Shoeb for violations of the District’s
Minimum Wage Revision Act (“MWRA”), D.C. Code § 32-1001, et seq.; Sick and Safe Leave
Act (“SSLA”), D.C. Code § 32-531.01, et seq.; and Wage Payment and Collection Law
(“WPCL”), D.C. Code § 32-1301, et seq. In support of its claims, the District states as follows:
1. Swahili Village DC is a fine-dining establishment run by experienced
restauranteurs Kevin Onyona and Emad Shoeb, who promise patrons a meeting place for
dignitaries and diplomats. But behind high prices and high-end cuisine is a grim reality: for years,
Swahili Village DC has profited by stealing from its own employees, including the servers, hosts,
food runners, bussers, and bartenders who made the Restaurant successful.
2. Under the leadership and control of Onyona, Swahili Village DC’s founder and
Chief Executive Officer (“CEO”), and Shoeb, the Chief Operating Officer (“COO”), wage theft
was rampant. Contrary to the District’s tipped minimum wage requirements, the Restaurant
compensated employees exclusively through tips—and in amounts far below the minimum wage.
The Restaurant regularly pocketed worker tips, by demanding workers turn over their tips and
keeping a large portion or the entire amount. It did not provide overtime pay to employees when
they worked more than 40 hours in a workweek. It never provided employees with the paid sick
leave to which they were entitled, even though employees were showing up for work in person
during the height of the global COVID-19 pandemic. And when employees complained, it
reprimanded or ignored them.
3. These egregious and systemic violations, which persisted for years, reveal that
wage theft and worker abuse were no accident at Swahili Village DC—they were part of the
business plan. Since January 2020, Swahili Village DC has employed hundreds of low-wage
servers, hosts, food runners, bussers, and bartenders. These employees are not Defendants’ elite
clientele: they live paycheck to paycheck, and they suffer when those paychecks never arrive or
are for less than what they are owed. To date, Defendants owe hundreds of thousands of dollars
and hundreds of paid sick leave days to its workforce of District employees.
4. The COVID-19 pandemic created challenges for every business and every worker,
especially in the restaurant industry, and Swahili Village DC opened right at the height of the
pandemic in March 2020. But the pandemic does not excuse Defendants’ misconduct. Unlike the
vast majority of law-abiding restaurants and businesses in the District that sought to weather these
challenges through lawful means, Swahili Village DC instead responded by foisting its costs onto
already-struggling workers through stolen wages. And even when the Restaurant’s business
rebounded in 2021 as patronage rose well above pre-pandemic levels, Defendants continued to
steal thousands of dollars a year from employees.
5. Onyona has boasted: “We pride ourselves on the charity component of our business
and want to be part of the community.”1 In reality, Defendants built a fine-dining empire on unpaid
labor from vulnerable workers during a global pandemic. The District brings this action to recover
wages owed to employees and all other applicable penalties for violations of District law.