It wasn’t long ago that Oakland’s Hi Felicia was a superstar of the East Bay scene, a playful, “vulgar fine-dining” juggernaut openly aiming for Michelin recognition where reservations were hard to come by. From its beginning as a pop-up, it was a refreshingly bold project from a queer woman of color who promised that things would be different.
After controversies over working conditions and pay plus a costly break-in, the once-high-flying restaurant closed in the spring. Roughly five months on, Hi Felicia owner Imana received a notice from the city of Oakland stating she has to pay $105,555 in restitution to a dozen ex-employees over minimum-wage violations. She has 45 days to do so, as first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.
After an investigation of the restaurant’s record and testimony from former staffers, the city found Hi Felicia was in violation of Measure FF, which governs how employees receive service charges on a given night.
In a lengthy Instagram post Wednesday night, Imana, who uses one name, defended her actions as those of a business owner dedicated to disrupting the traditional restaurant model in the interests of fairness and equity, claiming that $743,000 of Hi Felicia’s more than $1 million in sales went to employee compensation.
The restaurant, she said, was not profitable, because of a commitment to paying all staff more than Oakland’s $13.50 hourly minimum through a 20% service charge. To address the industry’s notorious discrepancy in pay, tipped front-of-house employees were partially subsidizing those working in the back.
“Had I known in the beginning how Oakland defines 'service charge,' I of course would have never opted in and just done minimum wage and tips and saved a few hundred thousand dollars,” Imana wrote.
While $100,000 is a substantial amount in a low-margin business, it’s a smaller penalty than those resulting from other recent, high-profile wage-violation cases. San Francisco fined Mission staple La Taqueria $600,000 over sick leave and unpaid overtime, while workers at Burma Superstar won a $1.3 million class-action settlement in Alameda County Superior Court.
The Standard has reached out to Imana for comment but did not receive a response by publication time.
In the same Instagram post, she preempted the formation of a narrative in which observers might simply conclude she stole her employees’ pay.
“I didn’t realize what being a public figure meant, and now I know very clearly. It means no privacy, it means an onslaught of public opinion, it means hyper scrutiny,” Imana wrote. “But I know better now.”
Imana also owns Sluts, a natural wine bar in San Francisco’s SoMa known for cheekily serving wine with snacks and junk food as a middle finger to stuffy wine culture. Two months after Hi Felicia closed, Imana announced that that space would become another wine bar, Jellybean. That project folded quickly as well.
Elsewhere, Imana has been a vocal critic of the way food journalists cover Black-owned restaurants. In particular, she called out negative reviews of famed barbecue chef Matt Horn’s new Oakland restaurant Kowbird over a hot dog that allegedly cost too much.
Astrid Kane can be reached at email@example.com