Posted on June 9, 2023

Inside the Shocking Rise and Fall of One of the Wildest Restaurants California Has Ever Seen

Elena Kadvany, San Francisco Chronicle, June 8, 2023

It was hailed as a culturally momentous, radically inclusive restaurant run by a young Black queer woman determined to upend the norms of fine dining. When Parker Kim heard about Hi Felicia in Oakland, they knew they wanted to work there.

A young transgender cook of color, Kim said Hi Felicia, which opened at 326 23rd St. last April, was the first restaurant where they didn’t feel tokenized or othered. They saw their own dreams in Hi Felicia’s 26-year-old owner, Imana, who uses just her first name. The staff, almost entirely people of color and many queer-identifying, wore crop tops and blasted music while serving a $195 tasting menu to diners clamoring to experience Imana’s much-celebrated vision of “vulgar” fine dining.

The Michelin Guide said the “bold and brash” restaurant had “created a fine dining experience unlike anything the world has seen before,” though it stopped short of awarding it a star.


But that dream quickly died. After just three months, Kim left Hi Felicia drained and disillusioned, feeling that the restaurant — and its owner — had failed them.

Fourteen former Hi Felicia employees, including managers, servers, cooks, wine directors and a dishwasher, told The Chronicle they experienced a toxic work environment rife with some of the very problems the restaurant had set out to correct.

Two former employees said Imana touched their butts multiple times and made inappropriate comments at work, including about the genitalia of an employee who had gender-affirming surgery.

Bounced paychecks and reductions in pay caused financial stress, several employees said. Health insurance promised in an employee handbook never materialized, multiple employees said.

Former workers have filed three wage claims against Hi Felicia with the California Department of Industrial Relations, including two from former chef de cuisine Selasie Dotse, according to documents provided to The Chronicle under the California Public Records Act. Imana paid former employee Marcos De La Fuente $829 to settle the third claim in November, records show. The Oakland Department of Workplace and Employment Standards is currently investigating a complaint filed against the restaurant alleging violations of the city’s Minimum Wage Ordinance but declined to disclose details about an active investigation.


Now, Hi Felicia is closed, abruptly shut down after a break-in last month. Imana announced on Instagram that she would open a “sleek and sexy” wine bar in its place. Within days of the break-in, painters were covering the neon-green exterior with paint to prepare for the new business.

Imana has become a very public — and somewhat polarizing — figure in the Bay Area dining industry, known for sharing vulnerable Instagram posts about her mental health next to videos of scantily clad pole dancers performing at Sluts, her San Francisco wine bar. She drew attention last year when she left a San Francisco restaurant without paying her bill, later saying it was an accident. Seven Bay Area restaurants and bars have decided to ban her, owners and employees confirmed to The Chronicle. When asked about false rumors circulating that she had staged the burglary of Hi Felicia herself, she told The Chronicle: “Anyone who knows me knows I wouldn’t just do a break-in. I would have actually committed arson.”


Dawn, a young Black cook, said they left the restaurant industry for good after working at Hi Felicia. {snip}

Dawn said Imana made frequent comments about their body, genitals and her attraction to them. Imana grabbed their butt at work multiple times, Dawn said. Dawn said they would either tell Imana to stop or ignore the behavior. Quin Kirwan, Hi Felicia’s former general manager, confirmed Dawn reported the alleged behavior at the time.

Imana said Hi Felicia employees never told her that she made them feel uncomfortable, nor did she receive any complaints about alleged sexual harassment, and no complaints with government agencies are known to have been filed. She said she touched some employees, but some employees also touched her and made comments about her body. She never thought it crossed a line: “There was consent because we were all best friends.”

“Any way you slice it there was an insane amount of inappropriateness, and it was the allure to dining at Hi Felicia,” she wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “It was vulgar fine dining.”


Behavior that meets the definition of sexual harassment is illegal in the workplace. Hi Felicia’s employee handbook specifically prohibits “sexual jokes or comments about a person’s body,” “uninvited touching of a sexual nature” and “unwelcome sexually-related comments.”

Nine former staffers said they felt Imana created a hyper-sexual work environment. Parker Story, Hi Felicia’s former wine director, said Imana once arrived shortly before the restaurant opened and announced to staff that she had been masturbating for several hours.

The culture at Hi Felicia was “super sexual,” Imana acknowledged, without the typical separation between boss and employee. She knew about employees’ sex lives and they knew about hers, she said. She said some workers saw her naked, and vice versa. But she said she doesn’t feel solely responsible for cultivating that environment.


Hi Felicia was born without any rules, Imana said.

She started by delivering $150 fine-dining meal kits from her home during the pandemic, then began hosting unpermitted multicourse dinners at her apartment. As word spread of the supper club, bookable only via Instagram, reservations became a hot commodity.


At one point, the cost to dine at the apartment was $225 per person, which bought a seven-course tasting menu with dishes like cashew queso and lamb enchiladas. But the supper club regularly served basic grocery store ingredients, including precooked rotisserie chickens, tortilla chips and pre-chopped vegetables, according to Kirwan and Dawn.


Though Imana presented herself as executive chef, staff who worked at both her apartment and the restaurant said they never saw her cook. Imana often publicly cited her experience at Michelin-starred restaurants Coi and Californios, without specifying she had worked brief stints there as a server, not in the kitchens. {snip}


As soon as it opened, Hi Felicia began receiving national media attention, from Bon Appetit to the Wall Street Journal. Celebrities including Ayesha and Stephen Curry dined on bite-sized caviar-topped sopes and scanned handwritten menus signed like love notes with “I love u!” or “xx Imana.”

Former cook Garrett Schlichte felt that Hi Felicia, despite its “faults,” sparked a “conversation about the possibilities of what a fine dining space could be like.” Once, when an older couple left mid-service after complaining about the music being too loud, it felt empowering rather than disappointing, Schlichte said.


Meanwhile, in recent months, paychecks started bouncing, several workers said. One employee said he would wait to cash his check until he’d confirmed that others’ had cleared. Staff worried a permanent closure was likely.


Many staff were excited last year when Dotse, a well-known Bay Area chef with experience at fine-dining restaurants such as Lazy Bear and Avery in San Francisco, became Hi Felicia’s chef de cuisine. Dotse stayed for nearly a year, despite what both the chef and Imana described as a challenging work relationship. Dotse said they felt saddled with more responsibility due to staff turnover. Imana said she put Dotse on final notice in February and wanted to fire them, but feared both internal and external backlash.

“I personally felt manipulated to keep hiring people of color … even if they weren’t performing well,” Imana said. “I had to beg the team to hire someone white. I would tell them all the time, ‘I feel like you guys are the ones in power.’ ”

By March, after issues with three paychecks and mounting frustration with the work environment, Dotse resigned. They said members of their kitchen team, including Pratt, had told Dotse they didn’t feel comfortable around Imana.

“Hi Felicia was not the safe space that she was trying to create. I was especially wanting it to be a space for Black people,” Dotse said. “As Black people working for a Black woman, we did not feel like we mattered.”