Swahili Village, the upscale East African restaurant situated along D.C.’s power-dining M Street NW corridor since early 2020, is under fire for allegedly breaking minimum wage and labor laws for years. A newly announced lawsuit from D.C. attorney general Brian Schwalb alleges Swahili’s founder and chief operating officer both engaged in a repeated pattern of stealing wages and tips from hundreds of its servers, hosts, food runners, bussers, and bartenders.
According to the complaint filed by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), Swahili Village DC’s chef-owner Kevin Onyona and COO Emad Shoeb allegedly owe their workers hundreds of thousands of dollars in backpay. Nicknamed “the Consulate” and christened by Kenya’s president upon opening, 295-seat Swahili Village targets a high-profile clientele of diplomats and dignitaries from the nearby World Bank and embassy row (1990 M Street NW).
The lawsuit alleges the defendants consistently paid many servers as little as $5 per hour (including tips) — or nothing at all — starting in 2020, when D.C.’s minimum wage stood at $14. Per a lengthy pre-suit investigation, the defendants underpaid some individual employees by more than $5,000 as the restaurant got busier in 2021 and 2022. The suit also alleges failure to pay overtime wages — despite some employees logging over 60-hour work weeks — as well as failure to distribute tips, maintain accurate payroll records, and offer paid sick leave, “even though employees were showing up for work in person during the height of the global COVID-19 pandemic,” states the complaint.
In addition to injunctive relief, the lawsuit seeks to recover wages owed to restaurant workers. Exact monetary amounts will be revealed during the discovery process, and any penalties imposed by a court down the line would be based on the number of proven legal violations. Eater reached out to Swahili Village for comment on the case.
“The [OAG] is committed to aggressively enforcing our wage and labor laws so as to ensure that employers do not steal from their employees and that all businesses compete on a level playing field,” says Schwalb, in a statement.
Onyona, a self-trained chef who came to the U.S. in 1999, first generated a following for his spiced, chargrilled beef, whole fried tilapia, and stewed goat in suburban Maryland. Swahili’s original home in College Park relocated to a Beltsville strip mall in 2016, and the D.C. edition was joined by another locale in New Jersey. Tysons Corner and downtown Manhattan are listed as two future expansion markets. Its storied D.C. address formerly housed Vidalia, the Southern staple where chefs Jeff Buben and R.J. Cooper won James Beard awards, and was Southern-Nordic hybrid Honeysuckle after that.
Swahili Village had more than 60 employees in 2022 and currently operates daily from 11 a.m. to midnight and 2 a.m. on weekends. Per Swahili’s philosophy page, employees are “challenged to improve through leadership, focus, intensity and persistence — and to create a work environment of pride, honesty, integrity and loyalty.”
Read the full complaint here.