The opprobrium and dirt-slinging continue in the story of Oakland "vulgar fine dining restaurant" Hi Felicia, which garnered widespread, entirely positive media attention in 2022 before abruptly closing last month.
When the restaurant switched to an a-la-carte format weeks before ultimately shutting down — something that owner Imana sought to blame on a break-in — SFist surmised that there was much more to the financial story happening with Hi Felicia. And anyone in the restaurant industry watching from afar might have guessed that a very confident 25-year-old first-time restaurateur who claimed to want a Michelin star in her first year in business might not have grasped all the challenges that awaited her.
But friends, former employees, and those who continue to work with Imana paint a nuanced picture of a bold and ambitious project seeking to upend the traditional norms of fine dining, and one that likely was going off the rails, business-wise, almost as soon as the flood of media attention began.
And, unfortunately for Imana, all that early positive attention has resulted in a pendulum-swing to notoriety's downside: backlash, finger-pointing, and schadenfreude.
This began last week with an SF Standard piece in which a reporter spoke to multiple former employees, including onetime chef de cuisine Selasie Dotse, a nonbinary Black chef from Ghana who had worked in several high-end kitchens in SF including Mourad and Lazy Bear.
"When I left my last restaurant, I was trying to find a space that was safe for queer and Black and Brown people because we are underrepresented in fine dining," Dotse told the Standard. But Dotse's experience was less than smooth, and they say they ultimately quit the restaurant in March after several bounced paychecks and "mounting frustration with the work environment," per the Chronicle. (Imana has denied that anyone's paychecks bounced, but those reports appear to have come from multiple sources.)
The Chronicle has followed with their own, fairly negative investigative piece, speaking to over a dozen current and former employees — those who still work for Imana either work at Sluts, the SoMa wine bar she opened earlier this year, or are preparing for the pivot of the Hi Felicia space into a wine bar. Much of the piece focuses on inappropriate touching and sexual banter in the workplace, which Imana defends as being mostly among friends.
"Every single person who worked there, myself included, was inappropriate," Imana tells the Chronicle, adding that this was part of the "allure" of the restaurant, and "There was consent because we were all best friends."
But several employees contradict that, describing how they had to ask Imana to refrain from touching them or commenting on their bodies. And still others describe a situation in which a boss was trying to maintain a casual, we're-all-friends-here environment that at some point could not longer be that — and one talked about Imana being angry about being excluded from one employee's birthday party.
Some have diplomatic and/or positive things to say, including former cook Garrett Schlichte, who said the restaurant launched a "conversation about the possibilities of what a fine dining space could be like."
And Mica Annese, a graphic artist who worked on Hi Felicia's logo and materials, tells the Chronicle, "I do think that she’s trying to do something different, be herself and highlight diversity and authentic people. In that process, my opinion is that she’s made herself vulnerable to various character attacks."
The bad-mouthing among staff appears to have hit a peak following the closure, though, with some even murmuring about whether Imana staged a break-in herself in order to provide an excuse to close. Imana tells the Chronicle, "Anyone who knows me knows I wouldn’t just do a break-in. I would have actually committed arson."
Some point out that Imana billed herself as an executive chef and touted experience at Coi and Californios, while those resume items were just stints as a server and she spent little actual time in the Hi Felicia kitchen. And one person, Hi Felicia’s former general manager Quin Kirwan, even describes the early days of the much-talked-about apartment pop-up restaurant that led to the brick-and-mortar, telling the Chronicle, "As we started getting press in the very beginning, it felt like imposter syndrome. Then I realized it wasn’t imposter syndrome. We were just being imposters."
To that end, setting aside employees' reported issues and some alleged poor management, this story might have turned out differently if the food being served was consistently worth the price of admission. And any restaurateur knows that all the press attention in the world doesn't mean much for long if the food isn't bringing people back. Employees seemed to be fans of the food that Dotse brought to the kitchen, but consistency may have been key.
The cuisine was billed from the start as being upscale Mexican with some Japanese and Spanish influences. But it's notable that some Yelpers complained about small portions and basic fare like cashew queso, ceviche, and tostadas for a $200 prix fixe — Imana lowered the price, and the number of courses, last summer, to $125 for seven courses. (The place still enjoyed four stars overall, with many complimenting the service and atmosphere. And one Yelper, Sheryl D., claimed a negative review of hers was taken down for having an alleged affiliation with the restaurant, which she presumes was part of a gambit by the someone at the restaurant to boost its star rating, but that obviously can't be confirmed. "They have quite the audacity charging over $200+ per person for Mexican food when you can get better Mexican food from a taco truck," Sheryl wrote.)
Early hype apparently gave way to some emptier reservation books this past winter, and the former employees also told the Chronicle that Imana chose to close the restaurant a number of nights when not enough tables were booked.
Obviously, so much wouldn't be getting made of a restaurant closing after one year were it not for the gushing attention it got early on. So, like many things, that's a blessing and a curse.