The whirlwind closure of Oakland’s Hi Felicia on May 24 following a highly publicized burglary led to multiple reports about the difficult work environment at both the permanent restaurant that opened in 2022 and in Hi Felicia’s early days as a pop-up. On Thursday, June 8, the San Francisco Chronicle detailed allegations involving sexual harassment and inappropriate comments from Hi Felicia owner and founder Imana, who goes by her first name only, as well as multiple instances of bounced or delayed paychecks. The San Francisco Standard also reported that a “steady outflow of employees” led to the restaurant’s demise.
Imana launched the restaurant with Michelin-star ambitions in April 2022, describing a vision of a queer- and BIPOC-friendly space for her staff, one that flew in the face of a hospitality industry that can be unwelcoming to women, queer people, and other minorities. But former employees now say that was far from the reality: They paint a picture of a mismanaged restaurant and “toxic work environment” that felt unprofessional and often unsafe. After the publication of this article, Imana issued a statement addressing the allegations of harassment to Eater SF, which can be seen in full below. Here are the key takeaways from the two reports:
- Hi Felicia suddenly closed in May following a destructive burglary that was confirmed by the Oakland Police Department to Eater SF. Imana said she was already considering shutting down the restaurant prior to the burglary, but gossip circulated that the owner was behind the burglary in order to facilitate the restaurant’s closure, according to the Chronicle. In response, Imana told the paper, “Anyone who knows me knows I wouldn’t just do a break-in. I would have actually committed arson.”
- If there weren’t enough reservations on the books, staff allege that Imana would sometimes close the restaurant and not pay salaried employees. She changed the format of the restaurant from a tasting menu to a la carte in May, but one-star reviews on Yelp continued to follow, with one calling the dinner “an embarrassing showing.”
- Hi Felicia employees allege their paychecks sometimes bounced; former chef de cuisine Selasie Dotse tells the Chronicle and the Standard they resigned after a third bounced check. Three wage claims against Imana have been filed with the California Department of Industrial Relations, per the Chronicle. Additionally, benefits promised to employees like health insurance were never established, and the Oakland Department of Workplace and Employment Standards is looking at a complaint that Hi Felicia violated the Minimum Wage Ordinance. In the report, Imana claims bounced checks were often the fault of her employees’ own banks, and that in two instances involving delayed paychecks she gave those workers advances.
- Maintenance issues plagued the space, including a roof leak that was not fixed for months and necessitated that staff not use the kitchen’s flattop range during heavy rain. In the San Francisco Standard report, two staff members allege they worked in a “freezing kitchen,” including Dotse, who says that during colder months staff would work in beanies and hoodies. Diners eventually noticed, and even commented on the lack of central heating; one customer on Yelp mentioned the low temperatures in a review. Imana, for her part, said the central heating issue was the landlord’s responsibility and that the roof leak was eventually fixed.
- Two Hi Felicia employees say Imana touched their butts “multiple times” and allege that she made inappropriate comments about a trans employee’s genitalia, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. A cook says Imana repeatedly asked him if he was gay and once asked if he would let another man perform fellatio on him. Another employee stated that Imana once arrived during restaurant prep and announced that “she had been masturbating for several hours.” Imana acknowledged the “super sexual” environment at Hi Felicia, stating some workers saw her naked, and vice versa, but added that she doesn’t feel solely responsible for cultivating that atmosphere. “How could I alone create that? The team and I built the restaurant together,” she told the Chronicle.
- Imana acknowledged the team socialized after hours, activities that she claims included drinking and taking drugs together. Employees also allege Imana retaliated against them for not hanging out without her, citing an instance when a worker was allegedly taken off the schedule after Imana was not invited to their birthday party. In response, Imana tells the Chronicle that while she was upset about not being invited, that was not the reason the worker was taken off the schedule.
- Imana is banned from at least seven Bay Area restaurants and bars, the Chronicle reports. This comes after an incident last year in which she allegedly left a restaurant without paying her bill; Imana later paid the bill and characterized the incident as an accident in a post on the Hi Felicia Instagram, which Imana used to share personal information. As of Thursday morning, the Hi Felicia Instagram account has been deleted.
- Despite Imana putting herself forward as the executive chef of Hi Felicia, employees allege she was rarely at the restaurant and often did not make any food herself. Those with her in the early days of the pop-up say the $225 dinners often used “basic grocery store ingredients” such as pre-chopped vegetables, tortilla chips, and precooked rotisserie chicken. (At her second business venture, Sluts, a natural wine bar located in San Francisco, the menu includes Chips Ahoy, Cup Noodles, and Lunchables.)
Update: June 8, 2023, 2:15 p.m.: In response to an earlier request for comment, Imana emailed the following statement to Eater SF.
“It was not brought to my attention that people were feeling harassed. These were the people I spent the most time with, and spoke to more than anyone else. If allegations this serious were being brought up to management, I feel sad that they then weren’t presented to me in a clear and direct way so I could offer reconciliation. The first time I’m reading the details of how people felt were through a newspaper. I do feel like people were very selective with pieces of a full story told, but I understand through and through it’s my job to set up clear boundaries and guidelines. I apologize to anyone who has felt harmed by my actions.”